Material world

Pub date January 16, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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The year 1988 marked the apex of David Mamet’s celebrity. He’d won a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, and American Buffalo was being produced by every little theater on the planet. He’d scripted several mostly admired films and had just directed his first, the coldly ingenious House of Games.

It must have been a heady time. One doesn’t get the impression that Mamet is the type to enjoy simply being celebrated. So it’s logical that at the moment when whatever he premiered next would be a guaranteed BFD, he both seized the opportunity and fuck-you’d it. Speed-the-Plow was a biting-the-hand-that-feeds-me satire of Hollywood-industry soulessness whose subject alone guaranteed wide attention. Then Mamet cast Madonna as the girl. By all accounts, she was a complete zero. But needless to say, the show was a massive event.

Two decades later the hype has long settled. Loretta Greco’s revival at American Conservatory Theater reveals Speed-the-Plow as what it always was: an acidic comedy that isn’t one of Mamet’s best plays but is too entertainingly brash to resist. The notion that Hollywood is essentially soulless — all about business, not art, as the characters keep repeating — was hardly news back then. And now everybody from key grip to Dairy Queen day manager analyzes what did and didn’t sell in the Monday-morning tally of last weekend’s box office. Why do we care? Is it because Hollywood, more than ever the focus for so many putative proletarian dreams, inspires gloating resentment as much as fascination?

Speed-the-Plow was never really controversial, even within the biz. Mamet clearly loves the winner-take-all crassness of his male characters here, for whom every interaction is a dominance game. Top dog Bobby Gould (Matthew Del Negro) has just been promoted to head of production at a major studio. His expensively minimalist new office (a movable set piece by G.W. Mercier) hasn’t been even been fully assembled when erstwhile coworker Charlie Fox (Andrew Polk) comes calling.

From Polk’s flop-sweating, highly physical performance you immediately glean that Charlie thinks he should be the man behind the desk — but since he’s not, he’ll do all the begging required of him. Actually, he’s got a very big bone to offer: out of the blue, a huge star has offered to make a prison buddy picture Charlie has a temporary option on. This is such a stroke of fortune that both men impulsively share their glee — the language getting a lot more sexual — with pretty, clueless temp secretary Karen (Jessi Campbell).

Once she exits, Charlie wagers this "broad" is too high-minded for Bobby to seduce — though B’s power and influence would lure just about any other Los Angeles underling into the sack in five seconds. Bobby arranges for Karen to visit his house that very night, on the pretext of her giving him a "report" on the loftily symbolic, probably unfilmable literary novel he’s been told to give a "courtesy read."

One shudders to think of Madonna stonewalling in the second-act scene, in which a garrulous Karen tries to sell Bobby on how he could "make a difference" by green-lighting a movie based on this apparently life-changing (though insufferable-sounding) tome. He plays along, trying to steer the evening in a horizontal direction. Yet the next morning, with Charlie anxiously awaiting their planned triumphant prison-flick pitch to the studio chief, Bobby is a changed man — a born-again wishbone pulled between commerce and conscience.

Satisfyingly cruel as this final tug-of-war is, it makes the play’s credibility vanish: Bobby is too content an admitted "whore" to turn Mother Theresa overnight. And with the epically tall, jock-handsome Del Negro in a part Joe Mantegna originated, the character radiates such golden-boy confidence that one can’t believe he’d have much use for a merely cute flunky like Campbell’s Karen.

Greco lets the lines breathe — her cast’s naturalistically varied delivery avoids that Morse-code monotony the playwright prefers for his staccato Mametspeak. But she doesn’t lend much weight to the ultimate question of who’s manipuutf8g whom, as this production’s Karen doesn’t seem capable of calculation. The lack of ambiguity makes this a frequently very funny Speed-the-Plow, but sans much suspense or climactic sting. *


Through Feb. 3

Tues.–Sat, 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; no matinee Wed/16); Sun., 2 p.m.; $14–$82

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228