(Several Bobby Goulds On …)

by David Mamet
Directed by Neil Pepe
Starring William H. Macy, Raul Esparza
and Elisabeth Moss
Ethel Barrymore Theatre /243 West 47th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

In the wake of Jeremy Piven having left Speed-the-Plow under a minor but controversial cloud, the producers have wasted no time in seeing to it that the role of Bobby Gould be filled quickly, decisively and with enough star wattage that the public has no time to register the loss without simultaneously looking forward to the next.

            Via Drama Desk re-invitation, I wound up having my second experience of this Speed-the-Plow revival on what may have been the first performance given by standby Jordan Lage in the interim before Norbert Leo Butz briefly took over. Standby is different than replacement, because you can’t entirely make the role your own, certainly not on quick notice; you step into a void and you have to be just enough like the missing guy not to throw off the rhythms and expectations of your fellow actors, and just enough like you to be…well, you. And I have to say, Mr. Lage was smart, funny, capable, and held his own against the whirlwind of Raul Esparza’s Charlie Fox, seemingly without effort. He’s still on point, if either of the stars misses.

            As to the subsequent Bobbys: I didn’t see Mr. Butz, but the critical community was invited back en masse to see William H. Macy, who will continue through until the end of the run. He’s quite a bit different than Mr. Piven, and while I liked him equally, it’s clear that the audience—those who had seen the play before, as well as those new to it, by dint of a more enthusiastic reaction, an unequivocal rush of cathartic approval—likes him better. This may have less to do with the performance itself being better than the contrast between the two men onstage now being greater. Piven and Esparza were contemporaries, both experts at light comedy; and while I would hardly call Piven’s performance shallow, it was nonetheless facile, albeit appropriately so, for the self-professed mercenary Hollywood executive he was playing.

            Macy, though, is older. His Bobby Gould is taking things more seriously. Struggling more with the humanity he has left. Weirdly, given the play—he is more sincere. Weirdly too, this seems to make Speed-the-Plow more of a contest, more of a struggle, as in the third act the two men battle for the moral high ground in an immoral world. His Bobby hasn’t merely been swayed by a single night with a persuasive woman. He’s been converted, Moonie-like, due to his own need to answer a yearning he’s never filled in himself. And Esparza’s Charlie Fox has to not merely knock sense back into him, but stage a one-man intervention. And again, in this world of gray areas and easy sellouts, that is, as the Brits say, a job of work. (Not incidentally, Macy’s yearning gives Elizabeth Moss a somewhat different target to aim at too, and she has made subtle adjustments accordingly.)

            So if you haven’t seen Speed-the-Plow yet, it is absolutely the thrill-ride it’s cracked up to be. If you have—well, a number of people leaving the theatre, who’d been there before, said the same thing in the same way: “It’s a different play!” I don’t know that I’d go so far…but I’ll allow this much: there sure is more to see…

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