As his final duty at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton directs David Mamet's 1988 play about Hollywood
Speed-the-Plow was definitely a highlight of the 2016 season announcement. For his final directing job, in his last season as artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton put together an enticing offer: one of the great American writers of the 20th century, David Mamet, taking on the intersection of art and commerce, in a production starring three excellent actors who are rarely on Sydney stages these days: Rose Byrne, Lachy Hulme and Damon Herriman.
Against expectations, this production feels like a hard slog. The sell was good, but the result is not as entertaining or thought-provoking as you want it to be, and not the kind of role you want to see an actress and comedian of Byrne’s calibre limited to. She’s a barely-there secretary who is at the mercy of the men in Mamet’s world; a ‘naive outsider’ who gets bitten by the ‘movie business’ bug and tries to play in the big boys’ game of 1980s Hollywood, but gets chewed up and spat out and dismissed cursorily as a “Tight Pussy wrapped around Ambition”.
Speed-the-Plow pivots around a choice between two film scripts. One will get produced by newly-anointed studio exec Bob Gould (played by Damon Herriman): the ‘star pic’ (a ‘buddy’ action film set in prison) brought to him by his colleague Charlie Fox (Lachy Hulme), or an “artsy” drama about environmental apocalypse and spiritual awakening, which his boss has asked him to give a “courtesy read”. The latter isn’t even a contender – until it is championed by Byrne’s Karen: an attractive, naive young ingénue who is on a temp assignment, filling in for Bob’s secretary.
Mamet’s play becomes a tussle for Bob’s soul between Charlie and Karen – a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other. Except the punchline of the piece is that there’s no such thing as an angel in Hollywood, and no room for idealism. Just money, power – success. The first line of the play – “When the gods would make us mad, they answer our prayers”, uttered by Bob – is prophetic. Bob has prayed to be good (and probably also prayed to get laid) and his prayers get answered – which it turns out is the worst thing that can happen to Bob. Karen, ultimately, is presented as the ‘Eve’ who tempts Adam.
Byrne is most satisfying in the middle act, where she channels many of her onscreen characters’ capacities for fully committed, almost evangelical, weirdness. (You can’t help feeling that if the whole of the play was Rose Byrne playing a drunkenly earnest ingénue who is spruiking an unfilmable new-age artsy text to a bemused Hollywood producer, it would be far more entertaining). But the tone of that performance feels completely out of place in the universe of the play: it paints Karen as genuinely, committedly naïf – where the final act betrays her as quite the opposite.
When Speed-the-Plow premiered, the American film industry was on the cusp of the great indie revolution (which – as official histories now have it – kicked off with Steven Soderbergh’s made-on-a-dime drama Sex, Lies and Videotape). But in 1988, the box office was all about blockbusters, star pics and sequels; this is the era that gave us Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, the Rocky franchise… It was dude heavy and commerce-minded.
The year it was first staged Mamet’s play probably offered a hot take on a brash new blockbuster era, from someone in the know. He had been writing films for about a decade (including the 1987 blockbuster The Untouchables), and directed two features in 1987 (House of Games) and 1988 (Things Change). He went on to write a book about Hollywood: 2007’s Bambi vs Godzilla. So when he wrote the characters of Bob and Charles, he’d likely had a gutful of crass, soulless, predatory producers just like them.
All this makes for a cracking first act of en pointe satire (albeit not so fresh or hot for an audience in 2016) and verbal posturing. You feel that dudey macho energy boiling up under the banter between two men who are ostensibly pals but actually competitors in a cutthroat business. When Karen turns up, and Bob and Charles start sizing her up and divvying her out like so much meat, you get that this is how men like them treat women working in Hollywood all the time. You get that Mamet is laughing at these guys as much as you are.
But is he? In the second act, Mamet asks the audience to seriously invest in the soul of Bob as it hangs in the balance, and by the third act he has thrown Karen under the bus – she’s just a another woman bent on sleeping her way into a better job. Then Bob and Charles walk into the cashed-up polluted-AF future arm in arm, with impunity. And this doesn’t look much like a satire; nor – in a post-Trump world – much of a comedy.
Does Speed-the-Plow work as a piece of drama? Sort of. Upton’s production isn’t as persuasive about the merits of this play as it needs to be. The muscular energy of Mamet’s dialogue was missing on opening night – too often it felt like the actors were reading lines, rather than fist-fighting with words. And the tone of the production felt uneven: the black satire of the first act is undercut by the earnestness of Bob and Karen’s characters in the second, where they are alone at Bob’s house. The third act feels aggressive and angry – not satirical.
It’s hard to hang in there when you aren’t presented with fresh ideas or characters to care about, and the stakes are so low. Neither film script seems good, and if Bob picks the wrong one and loses his job or becomes a laughing stock, it’s hard to imagine a single audience member caring much given the way he behaves.
New Yorker critic Hilton Als has a good read on Mamet’s play: that its structure and content mirrors the Hollywood “pitch”, with everyone pitching everyone else non-stop. This works as a reading – and is certainly backed up by the constancy with which Bob talks about how “everyone is always promotin’ me!” And it’s true to Mamet’s rather bleak view of human interaction: that the only time anyone opens their mouth is to get something. But this analysis offers a rather bloodless satisfaction; it’s not necessarily enough to sustain you for 90 minutes.
Merits of the play and this production aside, it’s punishing as a woman – and one imagines for many men, too – to sit through a play in which misogyny is so boorishly depicted and indulged, with no end in sight and no comeuppance; no conceivable revelation. It’s play that is thoroughly cynical about Hollywood and humans – but has nothing new to say. Mamet’s point seems to be that 1980s Hollywood is a place where masculinity, ego and commerce ruled. We know this already. It’s true as much today as it ever was, and not just in Hollywood. Why do we want to pay to see this boorishness on stage?