Monday, November 5, 2012

Speed the Wow! Masterful Mamet at Actors Studio

You know the type: Quick on the metaphorical zipper, ruler at the ready, eager (make that desperate) to show anyone not smart enough to flee before the display begins just how, um, huge they are — personally and professionally, of course. And that’s exactly what you get in “Speed the Plow,” David Mamet’s brutal, unflinching look behind-the-scenes in Hollywood, the so-called Dream Factory, which, as you might expect, is a bit of a nightmare, an alt-universe populated by blowhards and beancounters, gobshites on the make, loudly, desperately trying to prove something to somebody, especially themselves, Philistines, full of themselves — and worse — confident, convinced of their genius. And why not, since the bottom line bears them out, right? This is Mamet at his best: Observing men at work, their dreams, their insecurities, their camouflage. It’s a world he knows well, having played the game, writing and producing several screenplays there in the go-go '80s. The play, which examines the ugly confluence of art, commerce and power, is being staged in an irresistible, razor-sharp production at The Actors Studio of Newburyport.
The play, whose name comes from an archaic wish for success and prosperity, opens in Bobby Gould’s still-under-construction office. Gould (Bob DeLibero) has clawed his way to near the top of the Tinseltown heap. He’s been promoted to head an important department at an unnamed-but-major studio. He will have plenty of ‘splaining to do when he winds up on the other side, the real dark side, in “Bobby Gould in Hell,” Mamet’s follow-up to “Speed the Plow,” in which “the old whore,” as Gould and Charlie Fox (Steve Faria), his hungry-for-success flunky all-too accurately describe themselves, has to prove to himself and, more important, one of Old Scratch’s mid-level office jockeys, that he was not a bad man, just a schlockmeister. But right now, things are golden. He’s a big deal, but the success is still fresh. He needs to score to underline his so-called genius. Luckily for him, Fox, a bit player in the day-to-day Hollywood drama, a schmuck with delusions of grandeur, living in Gould’s shadow for far too long, but who, has not given up by any means, is absolutely giddy as he delivers to Gould the coup they both need: Doug Brown, apparently some kind of Arnold-like megastar, has agreed to do a film for them, when he could have gone “across the street,” to another studio with the buddy-pix, a prison film. A steaming pile, obviously. A potential blockbuster, a dream-come-true for Fox, which Gould sweetens the pot by offering him the co-producer slot. Name above the title. Yup, he’s gonna be rich, or, as he would have it, he’s about to come into “a great big jolly shitload of money.” They celebrate with lots of breast beating, celebrating the fact that they are masters of the universe, never worked a day in their lives, surviving on their wits: scamming, zigging and zagging. Their words. Their survival guaranteed by the bad taste of the American movie-going public, which loves bullshit and bluster — their attention guaranteed by massive advertising budgets.

Problem is, Fox has the option for the film only overnight. The deal has to be green-lighted by 10 a.m. the next day. The big boss can’t meet with them until just before that. But, not to worry, they think they can pull it off.

Then there’s also the other thing: Ross, the boss, wants Gould to give a courtesy read — a quick once-over but with no intention of ever producing it, done as a favor to some mucky-muck — of a treatment of a dreadful-sounding science fiction novel from one of those, you know, sissy Eastern writers, an Ivy intellectual type, one with a premise that, laughably, puts you in mind of that old Germs song “Manimal,” with its lyric “evolution is a process too slow to save my soul.” This sci-fried treatment posits the half-baked — or maybe completely baked is more accurate —notion that God delivered unto us radiation to help us evolve, take us to the next level. Gould figures he can use the script to maneuver in a $500 side bet he has with Fox: That he, Gould, can tempt his attractive temp, and, the unspoken-but-implicit conditional follow-up, discard her. The temp, Karen (Ashley Risteen), is supposedly naive, idealistic, uncorrupted by the business, a non-player, not burned out on hope and idealism, although, it turns out … well, not so much.  So Bobby gives her the script to read and invites her to his place that evening to “discuss it.”

Karen loves it, the treatment. She can’t stop talking about it, about how important it is, how its ideas could change the world. Bobby, still awash is post-coital bliss and maybe a little bit in love, and feeling more than a little inadequate intellectually, despite his bluster and confidence, decides to green-light this film — and reject the mega star buddy flick — even though it is clear that he has no idea what it’s about, or that it is just genre nonsense. Before you know it, it has become “our” project, Karen and Bobby’s project, and Fox, having just had his teeth kicked in, is incredulous — and more than willing to push back.

As they confront the truth, things get ugly — very ugly.

Will Bobby Gould do the right thing for the right reason?

What do you think?

By the time the curtain comes down, it become clear that little has changed — just a moral dust-up, quickly forgotten, not especially different from coming off a bad drunk, but what a ride. Directed by TASN founder Marc Clopton, who brings a kind of insider’s view to the industry, drawing on a decade of producing plays out left, in LaLa Land, before setting up shop in the Port two decades ago, bringing a fast-paced production that never flags. DeLibero, last seen in The Actors Studio production of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” Neil Simon’s dark comedy, and Faria, last seen in the seriously creepy “The Goat,” also at the Tannery stage, play off each other beautifully, egging on the little boy in each other, the kind of male taunting that always, always, always leads to trouble. You can almost smell the rank testosterone in the air. This being Mamet, Risteen, last seen locally in "Last Summer at Bluefish Cove," gets only limited opportunities, mostly in the second act, when she’s putting the moves on the schmuck putting the moves on her, when she shines. She looks bleary-eyed and a bit wasted, a quick score on any guy’s radar, but she knows exactly what she’s doing at all times, cleverly covering her inner bitch.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Actors Studio production of David Mamet's "Speed the Plow" runs weekends through Nov. 11 at the Tannery, 50 Water St. Mill #1, Studio #5. Directed by Marc Clopton, the production stars Bob DeLibero, Steve Faria and Ashley Risteen. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 978-465-1229. Tickets are available online through

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