NJT production of Mamet’s ‘Speed-the-Plow’ has bite, humor

Michael James Reed and Sigrid Sutter perform in the New Jewish Theater’s production of  ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Photos: John Lamb

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Now in its 16th season, the New Jewish Theatre has finally produced a David Mamet play. Its crackling production of “Speed-the-Plow,” his Tony Award-nominated 1988 play, which lays bare the deeply corrupt underbelly of Hollywood, was worth the wait.

Mamet, who received a Pulitzer Prize for “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and critical acclaim for his uncanny ability to capture exactly the way people talk in real time, deploys his full arsenal of theatrical genius in “Speed-the-Plow,” which is tautly and brilliantly directed by Tim Ocel, and performed with volcanic energy by the three-member cast.

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The play centers on the complicated and competitive friendship between two script-handlers who are given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when a top-tier actor embraces a prison movie he would like them to pitch on his behalf.

Bobby Gould (Christopher Hickey) and Charlie Fox (Michael James Reed) have been best friends for 11 years in the jungle of Hollywood, surviving by persistence and hard work. Mamet himself has famously said, “There is no such thing as talent; you just have to work hard enough,” to which one could add, and embrace a lucky break when one comes your way. Hickey and Reed are picture perfect as the fast-talking, non-stop bantering buddies who have been plugging away for a decade waiting to score a true blockbuster script.

Be warned: Hickey and Reed as Bobby and Charlie are fluent in what has come to be called “Mametspeak,” a profanity-laced, highly naturalistic way of talking, which includes lots of stammering, sentence fragments and interruptions. Mamet’s profanity might be off-putting to some, but there is an incredible, almost poetic energy to the dialogue.

When Charlie comes to Bobby with long-awaited good news that a Hollywood A-lister likes the prison movie script and wants the duo to pitch it to a potential producer, they nearly explode with joy and begin to mentally spend the soon-to-be-realized fortune from their share of the mega-million project. But a major complication comes in the form of Karen (Sigrid Sutter), an office temp filling in for the regular receptionist-secretary at Bobby’s head producer office.

Sutter does a masterful job of portraying Karen, a role that provided Madonna her Broadway debut in the original 1988 production. Karen seems naive and sweet, but also has an opportunistic streak. She falls in love with a ludicrous end-of-the-world script about radiation, and manages to use her physical beauty to seduce Bobby into setting aside the sure-fire-success prison yarn for the impossible-to-comprehend doomsday script.

Charlie sees his dream of financial success evaporate before his very eyes, at first thinking that Bobby is joking but then realizing that his longtime partner is deadly serious. Charlie and Bobby have had a business partnership that was almost an idyllic love story, with the more experienced and more hard-working Charlie giving way to Bobby as senior executive in the office. When Karen arrives on the scene, an unwelcome love triangle ensues that threatens to destroy not only the Charlie-Bobby friendship, but to sacrifice their careers.

As has been the case with Mamet’s many other successful plays, he lets the dialogue carry the production. He even uses a metronome during rehearsals to assure the right pace of delivery of his rapid-fire dialogue. Mamet, who is Jewish, also sprinkles Jewish references throughout his script, including one to Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Hasidic movement).

Most of the action takes place in Gould’s office, which is splendidly rendered by scenic designer Dunsi Dai.

“Speed-the-Plow,” which adroitly weaves themes of power, manipulation, lust and corruption against a Hollywood backdrop, is by turns hilariously funny and oddly affecting. It was a superb choice by the New Jewish Theatre for its first Mamet play. Hopefully, more will follow.