Monday, September 27, 2010

Green-Lighting the Degredation of America, At Our Behest -- Theatre Review: Speed-the-Plow at American Theater Company

Theater Review

a play by David Mamet
American Theater Co, Chicago
Thru October 24, 2010

In the theater just before the start of "Speed-the-Plow"--David Mamet's 1988 play about Hollywood decision-making--a classic Rolling Stones song was playing. At first I thought it was Sympathy For The Devil, but it was actually Gimme Shelter.

I don't know if the pre-show music was specified in the stage directions, was acutely chosen by this production's director, Rick Snyder, or was just what the folks at American Theater Co. felt apt.

But while Gimme Shelter certainly set the tone, on my way home after the show on Sunday afternoon I couldn't help think of one of the most incisive lyrics in rock history, from 'Sympathy': "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?,' when after all, it was you and me."

At least on the surface, Speed-the-Plow is about a studio executive named Bobby Gould wrestling over whether to "green-light" (i.e. approve to get made) a lousy movie with a big star involved or a likely much better but less bankable film. And while the typically acerbic Mamet, who had directed his first movie--the wonderful House of Games--the year before Speed-the-Plow premiered on Broadway, is seemingly lampooning the "Hollywood suits" for both embracing and epitomizing stupidity, he's also shrewd enough to make clear what the smarter business decision would be. As well as to imbue Karen, the secretary who pushes to Gould green-light the good film, with ulterior motives of her own, even if they're not quite as overt as those of film producer Charlie Fox in championing the morally-bankrupt blockbuster.

In his program notes, ATC Artistic Director PJ Paparelli writes, "In the shadow of the 1987 Wall Street Crash, Speed-the-Plow illuminates the universal struggle over doing what is right or what is profitable." But the brilliance of the play, or at least what I took from my first encounter with it, is that the parable isn't that simple.

Hollywood gets blasted by those of us who appreciate higher-quality films for putting out an overload of recycled drek, but the American public shelled out $161 million this summer on the latest poorly reviewed Adam Sandler film, Grown Ups, while the critically-lauded The Kids Are All Right--which was fairly successful for a movie of its type--has grossed $20 million. So in an industry called show "business" for a reason, how much can Hollywood be demonized for feeding us the crap we love to eat.

(On a similar note, not to get too far off-topic, a health group recently put out this video blaming McDonald's for causing heart attacks. I don't know about you, but Ronald McDonald hasn't ever broken into my home and stuffed a Big Mac down my throat. Let's not absolve ourselves of the detrimental choices we consciously make. I mean it's not like I was brainwashed in my youth to crave two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.)

This was a Mamet play I needed to see, in more ways than one. For although I've long considered him my second favorite playwright--behind Arthur Miller but ahead of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill--that's really on the strength of just Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. I liked Oleanna (which I didn't see at ATC in its dual run with Speed-the-Plow and likely won't based on a much lesser review from the Tribune's Chris Jones), but didn't care much for "A Life in the Theater" or two of his more recent works, "Romance" and "November." In fact, my love of two of his written & directed movies, House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner (and to a lesser extent, Heist and State & Main) probably imprecisely aids my regard for Mamet's stage canon.

With excellent performances from Darrell W. Cox (who adroitly adapts and refines the "manic aggressive" act I've seen him do in several roles at Profiles Theatre), Lance Baker and Nicole Lowrence, this rendition of Speed-the-Plow felt like a first-rate take on Grade A-minus Mamet. Not as evocative, multi-faceted or delightfully profane as 'Glengarry' or as subtle in its as allegory as American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow is fun to watch and has considerable depth beyond its surface. And with as much resonance today as in 1988, it's certainly worth--in a half-baked attempt at Mametian language--your f-ing time and attention.  

(Discount tickets for many performances should be available thru HotTix as I was able to get one for just $17.50.)

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