New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway

Why should we consider David Mamet’s piece (now on Broadway) a Jewish play? For starters, it takes place in Hollywood, home of an industry which owes its origins to Jewish entrepreneurs—and is, in fact, a Jewish invention which continues to be dominated by Jewish leaders, administrators and policy-makers. Secondly, the Hollywood types depicted in the play are most likely Jewish, though one cannot be sure of surnames like Gould and Fox. But, most importantly, David Mamet himself is one of today’s foremost Jewish-American playwrights, bringing his creative skills to both stage and screen.

And now to “Speed-the-Plow”: It’s rat-a-tat all the way for the play, now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. This 90-minute, non-stop show perfectly captures the Mamet rhythm, the Mamet style, particularly when actor Raul Esparza cavorts on stage.

The story, set in Hollywood, deals with three manipulative characters, each out to win fame and fortune at any cost. First on stage is Bobby Gould, director of production at a Hollywood studio (Jeremy Piven), soon joined by Raul Esparza as the over-wired Charlie Fox, and, finally, Elisabeth Moss as the office “temp.”

Charlie, an old-time buddy and colleague, has brought Bobby a new film, which he hopes to sell to the studio. But Karen, as the temp, all assumed innocence and good will, has other plans and another film in mind. As this three-way conflict plays out, no one emerges super-clean, as might well be expected of a Mamet play. “We are all whores,” one character acknowledges. While the goals of the two men are obvious, Karen is more subtle, more deceptive, and far more lethal. And she is certainly not above using sex as one of the tools in her arsenal. It is such a simple, forthright plot that one has no difficulty following the story line, which, indeed, is one of its strengths.

“Speed-the-Plow”offers a painful view of the world we live in, but, somehow, Mamet manages to transform dregs into art. The unique Mamet language—with its staccato half-finished phrases and chopped-off thoughts—works beautifully this time around, particularly as Esparza sets the pace and Piven and Moss fall into line. In fact, “Speed” works far better than its recent colleague on Broadway, the playwright’s “American Buffalo.” Though “Buffalo” is generally considered to be the better play, it had poor treatment in this revival and, as a result, closed peremptorily.

Mamet is certainly hard on his fellow Jews, if indeed these characters are Jewish. But he strikes an even harder blow at the whole Hollywood industry. What Mamet does not depict, and should certainly be mentioned, is that those very Jewish entrepreneurs (amoral or not) developed an art form which has been monumentally important to all Americans. These dream factories gave Americans the very dreams they needed to survive in hard times and emulate in good times.

“Speed the Plow” itself, with the emphasis on speed, is an engaging romp. If there is any criticism, it lies with the show’s costs compared to its length. With some tickets running over $100, this 90-minute show computes at more than a dollar a minute.

-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 12, 2008

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