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'Speed-the-Plow' skewers modern show-biz types

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'Speed-the-Plow' skewers modern show-biz types



Watching Rick Sperling and Peter Knox pirouetting their way through David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” Thursday night at Performance Network, I kept being reminded of those inimitable pow!-zap! Hollywood schlockmeisters Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson.

Tinseltown knee-jerk producers whose Cruise-control action epics (“Top Gun,” “Days of Thunder” et al) practically define Mamet’s line about movies that “Get the a---- in the seats,” Bruckheimer and Simpson might easily double as the “two old whores” Mamet’s 40-ish producer-protagonists Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox love to call one another.

Certainly director David Hunsberger’s flinty production of “Speed-the-Plow” sends the playwright’s dialogue practically flying off the printed page in a hilarious dance macabre propelled by a dominant theme: power and how people employ it. That’s something of a revelation, since Mamet’s deceptively brief play in fact seems many things. On one level it’s an impassioned howl against “whoredom” in Hollywood, against studio philistines duty-bound to make “the thing everyone made last year.”

It’s also a study in the casual sexism that abounds in corporate echelons, a winking probe into Lotusland deal-making (a ritual to which playwright-turned-moviemaker Mamet is no stranger), as well as a sardonic meditation on whether good films can exist in a time of “decay” (Mamet’s answer seems to be no).

Yet “Speed-the-Plow” is foremost a study in naked power (at one point almost literally so), pitting two characters in fanged competition for a third character’s soul. At play’s opening we find career Hollywood pitchmen Bobby (Knox) and Charlie (Sperling) in an effusive mood: Bobby because he’s been made studio chief of production; Charlie because he’s tentatively locked up a deal with an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style megastar for a lucrative action flick.

Into this buddy-buddy enclave intrudes Karen (Annie Wagner). Though merely a temp secretary, within hours she insinuates her way into Bobby’s home. Smart and aggressive, Karen’s perfectly willing to bed down with her boss (who’s already made a bet with Charlie on the subject) in the hope that Bobby will abandon the action shlocker in favor of a “serious” film based on an end-of-the-world-genre novel.

One might thus assume “Speed-the-Plow” is about idealism versus cynicism, with mysterious Annie a luscious muse bent on seducing Charlie into “doing something good” rather than make garbage movies for profit. Yet as Hunsberger and his cast play it, the show seems nothing of the sort. The “idealistic” novel Annie advocates sounds all but unfilmmable, a turgid tome about radiation being “a device of God to prepare the world for its final decay.”

When Wagner’s Karen, a New-Ager with iron ambition (a joke in itself), declares “I felt... empowered!” while hugging herself in post-hippie ecstasy, it’s suddenly impossible to take “Speed-the-Plow” as a plaint for Hollywood “to be better.” This is in fact Mamet at his darkest - a Mamet who reportedly believes society is embarked on a “final decay,” and relishes the quixotic power struggles of its victims-to-be.

For power is surely what this play is all about, with deadly enemies Annie and Charlie competing like rival lovers for Bobby’s favors. Brazenly willing to use sex to gain her “idealistic” ends, Annie stalks Bobby about his living room, forever in his face, ultimately performing a stunning striptease before her awed prey. Just as brazenly willing to use verbal and even-physical abuse to protect his own interests, Charlie next morning runs the gamut from raging bully to an old pal “protecting” Bobby from becoming “a laughingstock” if he approves the apocalypse film.

As always in Mamet, language becomes its own character, demonstrating the bizarre ways humankind communicates. While Wagner’s gorgeous Annie is a powerhouse paradox unto herself - sometimes a cold conniver, sometimes an open-mouthed 1 naif - Hunsberger strikes a beguiling point-counterpoint between primary players Charlie and Bobby. Emoted on Broadway as hipster twins (so I understand), our protagonists here could scarcely be more contrasting. A naturally recessive actor, Knox makes Bobby a soft-spoken, no-socks epitome of Lotusland yuppiedom, a virtual guru of unflappable cool.

Conversely, Rick Sperling’s Charlie is a frenetic, motor-mouthed carnivore, forever pacing, fretting, gesticulating - by turns caressing Bobby’s hair in slavish fealty, or throwing his “pal” to the floor in an eruption of betrayed-suitor fury. An actor’s actor, Sperling turns his role into a ceaseless, neurotic dance of on-the-edge emotions; even his hands weave their own frantic patterns in the air as Charlie tries to explain his mistrust of Karen or wails “Where’s that coffee?

Sperling is a master of Mamet’s inimitable stop-start speech patterns. Endlessly intertwining his oft-fractured sentences with Knox’s, he knows where to pause and where to punch just the right words in a given phrase (“I’m... going... to... be ... RICH... and... I... can’t... beLIEVE ... it!”).

“Speed-the-Plow’s” in-the-round set could look a tad more swank (especially Bobby’s office desk), yet the no-place-to-hide approach is intensely effective in evoking our scheming trio’s indelicate power balance. And though Mamet may forever remain an acquired taste, for those who love what he’s done both for and to American stagecraft, this production’s about as stellar as it gets.


(Left to right) Rick Sperling, Annie Wagner and Peter Knox in 'Speed-the-Plow.'

"Speed-the-Plow" will continue at Performance Network through July 21. For information call 663-0681.