Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mamet, revived and reviewed

My review of this season's double serving of Mamet revivals is in the current issue of Commonweal -- and, lucky for you nonsubscribers, available online as well! I'm afraid American Buffalo closed shortly after I saw it, and long before this column made it to print. But Speed-the-Plow was by far the better of the two, and it's still alive today (and now starring William H. Macy)!

Here's a taste of my take:
American Buffalo’s cast, directed by Robert Falls, proved unequal to the challenges of Mamet’s script -- like the characters, the actors might have profited from more deference to the text. Cedric the Entertainer (known primarily as a standup comic) and John Leguizamo (who has similar roots) brought plenty of stage presence to their respective roles as Donny and Teach, and former child star Haley Joel Osment made a touchingly vulnerable Bobby. But Mamet’s highly stylized interpretation of natural speech has an internal rhythm that none of the actors could capture. The characters’ exchanges were stilted, stripped of the mesmerizing pulse that drives them on the page; and the play, which is nearly all talk, remained limp until Teach’s violent explosion near the end.

The stars of Speed-the-Plow have the opposite problem: director Neil Pepe keeps their exchanges moving at such a rapid-fire pace that the onstage chatter seldom bears any resemblance to actual conversation. The tempo is appropriate, since Speed-the-Plow is, on a superficial level, a gleeful satire of the motion-picture industry, and its characters’ dealmaking banter is fueled by coffee and cocaine. But the snappy dialogue is more than just a series of vulgar one-liners. Encoded in the ironic allusions and insults are authentic questions about integrity and faith.
When I saw Speed-the-Plow I didn't sense much chemistry between Esparza and Piven, so I can't say I'm surprised to learn of Piven's reported unreliability and Esparza's post-Piven backbiting. But my issue with the direction was more basic than chemistry -- when the characters interrupted each other, as called for in the script, it seldom felt organic in even a heightened, cartoonish way. High school drama teachers, if they're any good, teach students to know the unscripted ends of their interrupted lines, so they won't trail off artificially, waiting to be cut off by a scene partner. Too much of the dialogue in this Speed-the-Plow was delivered with the obvious expectation that the line would be interrupted, and not in a "we know each other so well we can anticipate each other's reactions" way, just in a "we're reading from separate scripts in our heads" way. I don't know whether that got better or worse once Piven stepped out. Maybe reading from a script onstage actually made Butz's half of the exchanges sound more natural?

Despite that, I thought Piven was terrific and the production was very sharp. But I think it's unfortunate that Speed-the-Plow tends to be described as a satire of Hollywood and nothing more. It is that, but I think there's much more to it than reviewers tend to communicate. However, I learned in working on this piece that it's very difficult to communicate the deeper, more interesting levels on which Speed-the-Plow operates. It's also quite difficult to find quotable lines in either script that (a) make sense out of context (or are at least complete sentences!) and (b) aren't too overwhelmingly profane. Oh, and the formatting can be weird, too: I opted to follow the printed script for emphasis and capitalization, since I'm a purist like that, but online all the itals are stripped out, so you won't be able to tell.

Have you seen this play (with or without Piven)? What did you think? How does my reading strike you?

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