Thursday, August 20, 2009

Theater review: GableStage's 'Speed-the-Plow' a satisfying leer at movie biz

From left: Paul Tei, Gregg Weiner and Amy Elane Anderson
in GableStage's production of Speed-the-Plow.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

GableStage often produces name-brand plays that recently opened in New York, regardless of their quality. What else could explain artistic director Joe Adler’s selection of Romance and November, two undeniably subpar stabs at farcical satire by the cunning David Mamet?

On the other hand, the Coral Gables company is now serving up one of Mamet’s most concise, savage and satisfying works, Speed-the-Plow -- which premiered in 1988, but also just had a much-publicized Broadway revival this past season. This morality tale of amoral Hollywood has two juicy roles, which GableStage regulars Paul Tei and Gregg Weiner devour with relish, giving a textbook lesson in the delivery of fragmentary, foul-mouthed Mametspeak.

Speed-the-Plow is, in effect, a buddy play about the making of a buddy picture. Pseudo-humble Bobby Gould (Tei) has just been promoted to head of production at a major movie studio. And before painters have a chance to spruce up his office, his old pal Charlie Fox (Weiner) arrives with the deal of a lifetime. It seems that highly bankable Doug Brown -- yes, THE Doug Brown -- has agreed to do a formulaic, but unquestionably commercial, action script that Fox has been peddling. The catch is he has to get it “greenlit” by a studio in 24 hours.

Mamet, who has written and directed his share of films, usually outside the studio system, has an insider’s awareness of Tinseltown and the little boys at play dressed up in those studio suits. Mamet has built a career from the schemes and scams of America’s con men, hype artists and power brokers, of which Speed-the-Plow is a prime example. But unlike American Buffalo or his Pulitzer Prize winner, Glengarry Glen Ross, this workplace saga hinges on a dame, one of ambiguous intelligence and ambitions.

Enter Karen (Amy Elane Anderson), the attractive temporary secretary assigned to Gould, so naïve of the ways of Hollywood that she takes him seriously when he asks her to give a courtesy read to a deadly, unfilmable book in the pipeline called The Bridge: or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society, a Study in Decay.

Gould’s motive is clear. He has bet Fox $500 that he can bed Karen. But whatever Karen’s motives are, she becomes a rabid fan of the tome and convinces her boss to film it instead of the Doug Brown project.

That is a narrative leap that would strain all plausibility if Mamet were not having so much fun with it. In the second scene, at Gould’s home, Karen reads whole chunks of the strangulated prose and it lands on the ear with a thud. Mamet also captures well the glee of Gould and Fox over their imminent windfall on the Doug Brown no-brainer and, later, Fox’s volcanic anger over Gould’s inexplicable turnaround.

Tei and Weiner expertly handle Mamet’s dialogue riffs, hitting them back and forth like a killer handball match, with their enjoyment palpably evident. Anderson has the heavier lifting, since Karen -- like most female Mamet characters -- is simply less well written, but she manages the assignment well enough to keep the ball in play. A recent graduate of the University of Miami, Anderson may well turn out to be another valuable discovery of Adler’s.

Sean McClelland’s scenic design captures the temporary nature of the movie biz, as well as the creature comforts it affords. Adler either guides his two lead actors in their banter fest, or stays out of their way. Whichever it is, Speed-the-Plow is GableStage so on top of its game, it almost -- but not quite -- erases bad memories of Romance and November.

SPEED-THE-PLOW, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables. Continuing through Sept. 13. Tickets: $37.50 - $42.50. Call: (305) 445-1119.

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