by David Mamet
Directed by Neil Pepe
Starring Jeremy Piven, Raul Esparza and Elizabeth Moss
Ethel Barrymore Theatre / 243 West 47th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

David Mamet’s extravagantly profane, furiously funny Hollywood parable, Speed-the-Plow is always an entertaining play to watch, but its full power doesn’t really come across without guys in the lead who are simply smokin’. In the original Broadway production, directed by Gregory Mosher, the difference between the opening night team of Joseph Mantegna & Ron Silver and the replacement team of David Rasche & Bob Balaban was a little like—to use a metaphor apt for this play about Hollywood sharks—the difference between a novel and “the coverage”: the latter guys skillfully gave you the gist, but the first team exhilaratingly took you on the ride. If Speed-the-Plow has the right energy, the right star wattage, in its performances, it comes at you fast and sharp, like something out of a staple gun, so breathlessly you can sort of appreciate the nuances but not really savor them because the cast keeps them whizzing off the stage in such serious profusion. Which is not, not, not easy to do. Because the trick, among others, is to make it look easy.

                  Happily, though, that’s the trick that this first Broadway revival pulls off in spades.

                  I don’t want to say too much about the story; most of you probably know it, and those who don’t shouldn’t have it spoiled. Let’s say simply that it’s a parable about loyalty, relative truth, ambition and the power women have over men. It starts with independent producer Charlie Fox (Raul Esparza) crashing in on the office of Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven), a newly promoted studio executive, on the first day of his new job, with a golden opportunity. A+ star Doug Hughes, Charlie reports, drove up to his house that morning to offer him first option on his next movie, a prison picture/action film/buddy flick. Charlie could have taken the deal “across the street” (i.e. to a rival studio), but no, loyalty has mandated that he go to his old pal Bobby first. Bobby knows he can get his superior, the unseen Richard Roth, to green light the movie, and rewards Charlie with the promise of an above-the-title, equal co-producer credit. Only snag: Roth is on a plane and won’t be back until the next morning. This makes Charlie nervous—because “Dougie” has him on a tight leash. His first-refusal option expires the next morning. But Bobby assures Charlie that the green light is a done deal.

                  Which leaves about a 24 hour window through which someone can enter to throw plans awry. Enter young temporary assistant Karen (Elizabeth Moss). And I’ll leave it there.

                  Where Mantegna and Silver had what I can only describe as an ethnic gravitas and a swarthy energy, Piven and Esparza have lighter personae, and somewhat younger souls, thus their version of things isn’t quite so animalistic or aggressively Jewish in tone…but they find their own, smoother street-smart way in, like both of them are on a perpetual caffeine rush, Piven’s colored by the sly protectiveness of one guarding his new turf, Esparza’s by the hungry-shark circling of a guy who wants in; but making it more intriguing, there’s genuine affection between them too, whereas in the first production, with neither cast did the friendship seem like anything but a showbiz convenience.

                  Perhaps the moment that best typifies the contrast is in a bit of business fans call “the BJ” which is pretty much exactly what you think it might be. It’s not in the script and not every cast incorporates it (in the original production, the first cast did, the second didn’t); but it’s a bit of business that has been passed on in the collective consciousness. It’s the moment where Bobby Gould picks up the phone to make an appointment for him and Charlie Fox to see Roth and get the picture going. During which Charlie pantomimes going down on Bobby, as a joyously crude gesture of thanks. When first done, Mantegna was sitting on the side of his desk, Silver grabbed the desk on either side of him and moved up and down, push-up style, as if taking great, greedy gulps. Done in this new production, Piven is standing up, Esparza gets on his knees, never removing the cigarette from his mouth, and with mechanical efficiency, makes a few perfunctory bobs. And when he stops, Piven, still on the phone, pauses, considering, and then makes a little pointing gesture as if to say, “I deserve more” and Esparza adds a few extra bobs.

                  Now this may sound like nothing but the clinical breakdown of a gag (no pun intended), but the different approach is actually a metaphor for the difference in the relationship. Piven and Esparza are playing guys with a history of shorthand between them, the fact that Piven responds at all to contribute signifies a stronger emotional bond between these two guys, which makes things really interesting when its strength is tested, because there’s real guilt and real hurt in the potential for profound betrayal.

                  Speaking of betrayal, its catalyst is personified by the aforementioned Elizabeth Moss. In the 20 years since the play debuted, the role of Karen has become a little more transparent (her enigma has worn off only because storytelling continues to change and audiences continue to get faster and hipper), so the middle third of the play, her manipulation of Bobby, feels attenuated, and requires an actress with more pizazz than the Broadway originals (Madonna, at first, who was just kind of bad; and a young Felicity Huffman later, who was weirdly unremarkable, considering what she’d become). Ms. Moss is more than up to the task. The role is nowhere near so shrewdly written as those of Bobby and Charlie, but the fetching Ms. Moss is shrewd enough, with what she has, to (through no fault of her own, sometimes tenuously) hold her own with the guys.

                  And kudos to director Neil Pepe for—whatever the hell he’s done, be it bringing out the best in everyone, knowing enough to stay out of everyone’s way or some canny combination of both. What’s important for a play like this is that the director’s work stay mostly invisible, and Mr. Pepe has done an admirable job of precisely that.

                  This is Speed-the-Plow mainline strength. You won’t mind rolling up your sleeves at all…

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