Speed the Plow
Whatever the true reasons for Jeremy Piven's early exit may be, it should go without saying that William H. Macy is a vast improvement. With three seasoned stage actors, this current revival of David Mamet's Speed the Plow could have really gotten off the ground, but unfortunately it is weighted down by Elisabeth Moss and her less-than-convincing portrayal of the ambitious temp secretary.
Plow's strengths are found in Macy (Bobby Gould) and Raul Esparza (Charlie Fox), who work together like a tight rowing team, mastering the rhythm and pacing of Mamet's rapid-fire, profanity-laden dialogue. Scenes powered by these two actors are fast and funny and play the material to the hilt.
Macy's Gould is a man functioning behind a wall of thought regarding his newly elevated position in the picture industry. He carries on external dialogue while maintaining an internal weighing of his situation. Like most Mamet-done-well, he explores the connotations hidden between the lines while exploiting the humor they contain literally. Esparza joins him in this literal banter, playing a character who has less hidden in the essence of his being while loosely disguising desperation, frustration, and deep-seated anger in the casual nature of his words. Esparza's Fox betrays an offstage life in his dress and demeanor, which tell the tale of the late nights, cocaine, and sleep deprivation that probably landed him the offer he has worked so hard to get. In this regard both Macy and Esparza's characters are rats from the same filthy litter that have weaseled their way to the cheese via different routes.
In the give-and-take world of acting, there is only so much one actor can do to make a scene convincing in a moment written for two. This is made painfully obvious in the second act of the play, where Macy is being pitched to by Moss (Karen). Moss never firmly establishes what her character truly is, idealist or hustler. As a result she is believable as neither. Failing to make the movements of her advances towards Macy her own, Moss reads as an actor hitting the marks that her director has provided for her. Macy does his best to play that he is convinced by her words, but as she is not convincing to the audience, there is a devastating law of diminishing returns set in motion for the remainder of the play. This is most evident in the last act, as Esparza and Moss carry out a Faustian battle over Macy's soul. Esparza's well-defined character is the one you want to see win, despite his hedonistic views, thus destroying the necessary tension for the play's final conflict.
Neil Pepe's direction is adequate, though painfully self-evident. Moss's acting is a fault that must be equally distributed between the two. The strange choice of creating the illusion of a flashing projector for the scene changes is confusing in its intended affect and irritating as a tacked-on gimmick to distract the audience from the set change everyone knows is happening. Whether this was Pepe's decision or that of the scenic designer, it was a poor one. Both the set, designed by Scott Pask, and costumes, by Laura Bauer, have a distinctly L.A. feeling, creating an appropriate empty and soulless backdrop for these intentionally empty and soulless characters. - C. Jefferson Thom
Speed the Plow is playing at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre through February 22.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.