Speed-the-Plow @ Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York

cast list
Raul Esparza
Elisabeth Moss
Jeremy Piven

directed by
Neil Pepe
There’s a particular way of acting in a David Mamet play, or at least that’s what Neil Pepe – the director of the current revival of Speed-the-Plow – seems to believe.

His quick, cutting dialogue, like Pinter’s pauses, is to be respected at all costs, to be spat out at breakneck speed. That’s all well and good; the pacing is inherent to the material. But at what point, for the actors, does laboring in the service of the material end and embodying the characters begin? That’s the question lingering over the performances in Neil Pepe’s uninspired production of Mamet’s modern classic.

In the first of the play’s three acts (it’s performed without an intermission), we meet Charlie Fox, a studio underling who’s come to pitch a big idea to Bobby Gould, a recently promoted Hollywood muckety-muck. The two go way back, and Charlie is doing him a favor by proposing to him a buddy pic featuring a big-name star who’s willing to cross over to their studio to make a big-budget movie. The catch is that Gould’s only got twenty-four hours to green-light the movie. Enter Karen, Bobby’s ditzy fill-in secretary, who complicates things by advocating for one of the studio’s latest “courtesy reads,” a novel about the end of the world by some “Eastern sissy writer” from which the trio of characters liberally quote.

David Mamet writes primarily fast-paced plays about greedy American men, and Speed-the-Plow is no exception. The leading men scheme, they swear, and they get into fights. They value money over all else, and they degrade women. And yet, though it’s set in the 1980s, no matter how much Americans may think their country has progressed, it’s a play that could take place today (lines about Hollywood “mavericks” get a particularly timely reaction).

Greed is a static presence in American life, Mamet seems try to convey in every line of his play. In his two leading male characters, he’s written a fine pair of sparring partners. It’s a shame, however, that the character of Karen – a lamb amongst lions – and the middle of the three acts, which features her most prominently (and is ill-lit by Brian MacDevitt for moody, soporific effect), sags so much.

As Charlie Fox, Raul Esparza brings a slight note of redemption to a three-person cast of actors who only just get by on their quick delivery. Esparza delivers his lines with feeling, like an overheated clown jabbing at Gould until he breaks, at least for the time being. But Elisabeth Moss as Karen gives a lazy, grating performance, and Jeremy Piven (of Entourage fame) is merely satisfactory.

Collectively, under the direction of Neil Pepe, they seem to serve more often as mouthpieces than as full-bodied characters. Pepe seems to have taken to the idea of serving the conceptual elements of the play over the human ones. He infuses the silent scene changes with out-of-place filmic flickering lights. The cast never seems to boil over like the Hollywood animals they are. Instead, they seem to simper in relative unease.

There’s still some fire in this production of Mamet’s classic yet, mostly due to his opening and closing acts, which play out – no matter who’s taking on the parts – like a genius duel of wits. But Pepe and the players don’t seem down for the count. Throughout, the actors playing these two sharks (and one minnow) seem to be circling, marking time. If only someone could clue them in and let them know they can be as greedy as they want.

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