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Making a Cuss

Mamet's fast-paced play wins over hostile crowd

Michael Leicht and Dave Gamble get down to business.

By Glennis Markison | Posted 5/6/2010


By David Mamet

Through May 16 at Vagabond Players

The average age of audience members at a recent Vagabond Players performance of Speed-the-Plow was about 97--slightly older than the theater itself. Some of these season-ticket-holding senior citizens had shown up to the theater expecting to see Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, only to discover that Vagabond Players had replaced it with David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow--though the theater announced the change months ago. About ten minutes into the show, an especially bitter fellow responded to a burst of laughter in the audience, asking loudly: "Do you really believe these are laughable lines?"

David Mamet's play is chock-full of vulgar, profane language. You've got to know what you're getting into, because this show isn't for the faint of heart. If you can't appreciate one of Charlie Fox's (Michael Leicht) best lines, then you should stay home. After comparing the movie business to a "new love affair," Charlie says that the industry is "full of surprises and you're constantly getting fucked."

For those who giggled, there's more where that came from. With just three characters, two acts and two sets, Mamet's story is dominated by its dialogue. Speed-the-Plow follows two Hollywood producers Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould (Dave Gamble) and Bobby's secretary Karen (Beverly Shannon), who comes between the men as they negotiate a huge movie deal. Mamet's fast-paced, irreverent script explores masculinity, friendship, and power. It shows the lengths men--and women--will go to get what they want.

Having worked as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood, Mamet has the right stuff to provide an authentic portrayal of the cutthroat movie business. Even when all hell breaks loose in the last scene, audience members don't have to suspend their disbelief. Mamet has convinced the crowd that anything can happen in a Hollywood producer's office the morning of a big meeting. It comes as no surprise that Mamet received a Tony Award nomination for this play.

And boy, do the cast and crew at Vagabond Players make his world come to life. The skittish piano melody that introduced the production set the mood perfectly. The male leads establish early on the balance of power in their relationship, through their pacing of the dialogue and their body language. Charlie leans into Bobby, patting his friend's shoulders and chest in a desperate manner. He pushes the tempo of the dialogue, speaking quickly to preserve any dignity he has left. Bobby, on the other hand, leans back comfortably in his chair and speaks slowly, pausing as he sees fit. He's in control--only he can convince the higher-ups to "green light" the project.

With his careful phrasing and mock sincerity, Gamble plays Bobby with a Christopher Walken charm. In his desperate state, Leicht's Charlie builds to magnificent Lewis Black crescendos. During an especially heated exchange in the first act, Leicht forcefully wipes his nose. His priorities have shifted--instead of working on the deal he's just to trying to stop his brain from exploding out of his nostrils.

Karen's entrance in the scene adds a new dimension to the verbal tango. Standing in the middle of the stage, she serves as a sort of referee in their stand-off. However, her position also suggests that she has the potential to harm their friendship (and possibly their careers). They may objectify her for the time-being, but she'll use her feminine whiles to her advantage.

While Shannon plays a Karen who seems a bit too naïve and then a bit too conniving, she does shine in one scene. At this point in the show, her over-the-top behavior is just right. She tries to convince Bobby that a screenplay about radiation is going to make him big bucks. As she leans into the producer and reads from the script in a passionate, almost pleading voice, audience members can't help but laugh. She thinks Bobby will finance a film about radiation and hopelessness instead of a prison picture about ass rape? Not gonna happen. Bobby's slow nods and guffaws express the perfect combination of encouragement and contempt.

This scene (and Gamble's fabulous facial expressions) convinced an initially hostile crowd that Speed-the-Plow wasn't so bad after all. One audience member who'd provided commentary throughout the show was certainly pleased with what he saw. "His expression," the man said. "Look at his face!"

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