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A Slick 'Speed-the-Plow'

But Mamet's morality play is looking a bit dated

By Sheridan Morley International Herald Tribune, 22 March 2000
A decade or so ago, ''Speed-the-Plow'' was the play in which Madonna made her Broadway debut, thereby neatly unbalancing a relatively minor role. It then turned up in a much better staging at the National, though David Mamet's script, essentially, has always been a one-joke sketch about Hollywood

studio executives running amok. It is vastly less detailed in its analysis of California dreaming than, for instance, Christopher Hampton's ''Tales From Hollywood'' or almost any of the writing of the now shamefully neglected Clifford Odets.

The new production at the New Ambassadors is slick and smooth, but the play is beginning to look faintly dated.

Two old buddies — a clean-cut studio executive (Mark Strong) and a shambling but no less ambitious agent (Patrick Marber, a dramatist who often comes closest to Mamet's raw, urban writing pace) — fall out over an apparently innocent young secretary (Kimberley Williams), and whether to green-light the agent's surefire blockbuster or the girl's more ecologically worthy picture about the perils of radiation.

That's about it for plot, and the problem is that while the first and last of three short acts are Mamet at his ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' best, Act 2 is a kind of uneasy intermission.

The play of the movie only comes to life in the studio office where it starts and ends, and where no sentence is ever truly finished, no deal finalized, no contract signed, no movie made. As always with Mamet, the quickfire, manic intensity of the dialogue is the cardsharp's emotional sleight of hand.

But ''Speed-the-Plow'' also strains to be a morality play about power, sex and moral epilepsy.

Whether noting that in Los Angeles one wrong deal will turn your name into a punch line overnight, or that no movie is now made that cannot be summarized by one line in a television listing, Mamet is savagely energetic in his hatred of an industry that he clearly sees as yet another metaphor - like real estate in ''Glengarry'' or junk shops in ''American Buffalo'' - for the moral and spiritual decline of his nation.

But just as Hollywood defeated his spiritual father, Arthur Miller, in ''After the Fall,'' so it comes dangerously close to having the last laugh here. Not surprisingly, nobody has ever tried filming ''Speed-the-Plow,'' and Mamet is ironically now much more successful as a writer and director of movies than when he wrote this diatribe. But it remains a sharply savage satire in a brilliantly brittle staging by Peter Gill.


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