Thursday 20 November 2014

Speed The Plow tills its turf terrifically 

Mamet backdrop : In an uncited interview from back in the day, playwright David Mamet offered up some insights into what his plays, generally, are all about : "Here's what happens in a play. You get involved in a situation where something is unbalanced. If nothing's unbalanced, there's no reason to have a play. If Hamlet comes home from school and his dad's not dead and asks him if he's had a good time, it's boring. But if something's unbalanced, it must be returned to order." Something unbalanced. That is always what David Mamet scripts try to focus on. The people. The times. The culture. The disequilibrium inherent in all three.

Considered one of his lesser scripts, STP is nevertheless quite popular as a re-mount. As you read this, Lindsay Lohan (sic) plays the ingenue fill-in secretary Karen at the Playhouse Theatre in London, UK until month's end. (Her first stage play -- mixed reviews.)  STP is popular perhaps because it has many of the Mamet tropes from his other plays like his signature piece Glengarry Glen Ross : AK-47 clips of cutting dialogue; awakening & betrayal; re-birth -- but often in the same old stew -- by characters hungrier for power than they are for enlightenment or release.

Set-types often populate David Mamet scripts. The naif. The realist. The cynic. Then there's the "temporarily lapsed-cynic". Usually a pretext anyway of a romantic on the loose -- sex just about for sure. Nowhere are these types more prevalent than in Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that truth intimately. He became one. It killed him.

Written in 1980, STP's middle-age greying around the temples and its belly paunch are starting to show. Are debates whether Hollywood should produce art -vs- sell schlock to fatbutts all that relevant any more? E.g. name the last truly intelligent drama since Lolita or The Last Picture Show that you can recall issuing from that place... [lol].

Plot overview :  Recently promoted to head of production at a major Hollywood studio, Bobby Gould is charged with finding suitable scripts for his boss to "green-light". The idea, usually, is for the studio to make money. Enter his associate Charlie Fox, a lesser mortal in the celluloid capitol. He has been approached by a marquee actor named Doug Brown -- think Brad Pitt here -- who loved the rock-'em sock-'em prison buddy-boy script Fox presented to him. Brown wants Gould's studio to produce it, not his own nor a competitor "across the street". Fox sees stars & $$$-signs & a catapult up Hollywood's success ladder for himself once the credits roll and his name is near the top. Being a Producer makes you a somebody.

Meanwhile Gould is in the midst of a "courtesy read" of a novel he disses because it comes from "an eastern sissy writer" -- all about the cumulative effects of nuclear exposure called Radiation. Think of Jailbreak! -vs- The Power of Now. Which should be marketed as the studio's next blockbuster ? These are the choices facing BG on his first day on the job. As Karen notes later, the buddy film is sheer "degradation, despicable, meaningless -- the sex, the titillation, the violence", all of it. Gould responds : "We make the same thing everyone else made last year, that's what they want." 

With frat-boy snickers, Fox and Gould nudge-nudge-wink-wink over Karen. Fox bets Gould he can't seduce her. Gould figures he can. The winner's booty will be $500. Gould asks Karen to do her own courtesy read of the novel and bring it -- and her opinion of it as a box office candidate -- to his mansion that evening. She does her bit. He does his. They do each other. While he's $500 richer out of it all, young Karen thinks on his couch that she has convinced him the "sissy" piece Radiation is the one he should now promote.

The third scene is where Mamet resolves the "unbalanced" aspects of the story so far. Again a telling insight from an interview : "The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always 'What does the protagonist want?' That's what drama is. It comes down to that. It's not about theme, it's not about ideas, it's not about setting, but what the protagonist wants."

Quintessential Mamet : In Scene 3 of STP we get line-after-line of juiced-up punchy dialogue from the out-fox'd Fox, even some fisticuffs before it's all over.  Recall Mamet's words up-top : "...if something's unbalanced, it must be returned to order."

In this scene the "temporarily lapsed-cynic" Gould protests that Karen has opened his heart to God and the inevitable End of Days. A.k.a. The Rapture, from the Book of Revelation, thanks to cell phones and microwave ovens and general nuclear-trickery all 'round. Thus, he says, after decades in the movie business "I found something that I can believe in." And that's why he's going to green-light the Radiation script instead of Fox's ballsy-buddy flick.

Fox explodes : "You're a chippy, a whore, you think because you work with your legs you're a ballerina!" Gould shoots back that Fox's jibes at him are just words. "It's only words unless they're true," Fox snarks in reply. "I believe in the words of that book," Gould defends himself, meekly. "I believe in the Yellow Pages, but that doesn't mean I'd make them into a movie!" Fox spits out with venom. True vintage Mamet, all of this.

Character take : Strong, strong performances by all the actors, but especially Mitch and Murray Productions Artistic Director Aaron Craven as the sycophant bully-boy Charlie Fox, the "realist" of the play. From the get-go his character's manic agitation, hyper-ventilation and sheer physicality were 100% compelling. His Hollywood buzzwords, meanwhile, are more spit than spoken. Each zinger was glib, nasty and sardonic.

Craig Erickson as Bobby Gould puts every bit as much gusto! into his role as Craven. Gould's character, however, is Mamet's least persuasive part in STP. His "conversion" to Karen's God-of-Rapture after she beds him was less than fully believable at any point. The flip-flop from braggadocio to wimpster overnight was a stretch, even if intended as satire. Followed by his turnabout back to what the studio expects of him. Utterly predictable, all this, no question. "Balance" has been restored. The protagonist figures out what he wants most of all.

Kayla Deorksen as Karen is an I found it! bumper sticker Christian. Mamet gives her a few doe-in-the-headlights soliloquies in Scene 2. Deorksen performs them blessedly. She prays God stands behind her during her sex-toss with Gould so she can advance her L.A. career in His name. All she wants is a bit part during the production of Radiation. She worships the novel's words, after all, almost as much as she does His Own. But when she confesses her "wickedness" at play's end like a Salem witch, her role as the pathetic but woefully abused naif tossed into a gnarly garden of vipers was all the more poignant.

In 2014 this is not groundbreaking stuff, thematically. Power. Wealth. Stiff egos. Women as sex objects. Sex objects as power seekers. But it's the crispness, the pace (the pace, the pace, ever the pace!) of David Mackay's direction of his cast that makes this a whipcrack performance. STP stings with delight after delight! both in dialogue and stage action.

Production values : I disagree with Mr. Mackay when he says in the Director's program note: "It may not be everyone's dream, but if you had a chance to pitch a Hollywood movie and procure all the earnings, swag and entitlement that could follow -- how far would you be willing to bend your moral integrity to achieve that aim?" Really? Naw. Bobby Gould has a moment's lapse as a scarred and hidebound Hollywood cynic is all. No true personal integrity or life-values beyond the traditional boys' club trophies of power, wealth and stiff egos noted above. That, however, is but a quibble.

David Roberts' set of Gould's film studio office, stage left, contrasts nicely with his 60's Bauhaus living room ensemble, stage right. (Only wee catch was the paint bucket in his office from Benny Moore. The French word peinture in capital letters jumps out. A quick trip to Neilson's Lumber in Point Roberts would have produced a proper Yankee prop.)

Lighting designer Gerald King backlit well indeed the moody Hollywood photo panels provided by Shimon Karmel. They reflect the times perfectly, particularly the full-on shot of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Sunset Boulevard out Bobby G's office window. That's how I remember the place from my time living there in the mid-60's. Only the circular disc Atlantic Records building near Hollywood & Vine was a.w.o.l., alas, from this charming snapshot of a lost epoch. 

Who gonna like : If you're a career Mamet-junkie like me, this production will thrill and excite you no end despite its random warts. If you don't know Mamet much but want a real "up close and personal" 80 minutes of verbal swashbuckling, STP may be -- no, will be -- the best bang for your buck so far this season in Vancouver. Who can resist well-executed target-practice at set-types from Hollywood at any time? Great viewing, this, both for its straight stuff and its satirical barbs. And the Studio 16 stage @ 1551 West 7th is the perfect intimate room for such an evening's engagement.

P.S. note : The title.  Speed The Plow.  Mamet once explained it thus :  "I remembered the saying that you see on a lot of old plates and mugs : 'Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.' This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so Speed The Plow was perfect because not only did it mean 'work', it meant having to 'plow under and start over again'."

Particulars : To November 29, 2014 @ Studio 16, 1551 West 7th Avenue between Granville and Fir.

Playwright David Alan Mamet. Produced by Mitch and Murray Productions. Director David Mackay. Lighting Designer Gerald King. Set Designer David Roberts. Stage Manager Breanne Jackson, Publicist Katherine Brodsky. Photography Shimon Karmel. Production Manager Michael Coen Chase. Technical Director Colin Carruthers.

Featured actors : Craig Erickson. Aaron Craven. Kayla Deorksen.


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