Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Stand and Deliver: Soulpepper's Production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow

Ari Cohen & Jordan Pettle star in Soulpepper's production of Speed-The-Plow (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

“They’re only words; unless it’s true” – Charles (Speed-The-Plow)

Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company obviously loves the words of David Mamet. They've already produced a first-rate Oleanna and a solid Glengarry Glen Ross in recent years, proving the American playwright’s work is still relevant. Speed-The-Plow can now be added to that list of productions Soulpepper does with great energy and efficiency. Mamet’s plays feature smart, fast-talking characters with razor sharp wit and a focused point of view. In Speed-the-Plow, which debuted in 1988, we get a layered work that’s about loyalty, personal integrity and morality set in the one place that least values those attributes: Hollywood. In Soulpepper’s efficient and uncluttered production, we’re given just the right amount of hope to believe that Hollywood is still about making good films, regardless of the ego-driven executives who produce them.

The play opens with the main characters, Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen) and Charlie Fox (Jordan Peddle), agreeing to produce a movie that will put “asses in seats” and provide them with enough money “to piss on.” Gould was recently promoted in the fictional studio, to produce movies with a budget under 30 million dollars. Fox, who’s worked for Gould for over ten years, is the highly ambitious junior looking to join the Hollywood elite with the new film. Cohen and Peddle work extremely well together bashing each other with pseudo-compliments and the kind of “buddy-buddy” language Hollywood-types like to speak. Both actors relish the language and their timing is excellent. At no point in the play did I ever doubt their strong relationship.

Karen, sensitively played by Sarah Wilson, is the temporary secretary whose ambitions are so muted, compared to the men, that we’re never really sure what she wants. (Wilson played Carol in Oleanna in 2011) Consequently she appears as the unassuming foil to Bobby and Charlie. She’s a lousy secretary, but Karen is deep, thoughtful and someone who will never fit Hollywood’s pretentious elite, represented by Bobby and Charlie. But she is interested in learning how a movie is made and the type of work her boss, Bobby Gould, does on a daily basis. (What he does is vet scripts and book submissions for approval.) He assigns Karen a chance to learn by reading a novel called The Bridge, as a courtesy to the author who wants to sell the rights. Bobby wants nothing to do with it because the book is about the end of the world and, in his mind, wouldn’t make him any money to “piss on.” So Karen takes up the offer and decides to read this massive book as a courtesy to him. What she doesn't know is that Bobby has accepted a $500 bet from Charlie, to seduce her that very night. 

Sarah Wilson & Ari Cohen (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)
In Act II, Karen argues so effectively for the book, that Bobby decides to make it instead of the movie Charlie brought him.  It’s a beautifully written scene that Wilson performs with gusto. Typical of Mamet’s work, the female characters are never what they seem. In Speed-the-Plow, Karen is ultimately revealed as someone whose moral compass is honest and true. Act III is the final showdown for Bob who rides the line between his comfortable, selfish values into a new, riskier endeavour. As Bobby puts it on many occasions, “ I'm confused,” and he is because Mamet’s characterization shows us a man who “stands aloof from the struggle of life, calmly contemplating it, or he who descends to the ground, and takes his part in the contest.” Comically executed by Ari Cohen in this production, at the end of the play, Bob makes his unsurprising decision.

In this production director David Storch should be complemented for economical staging of this rather intense play. The dialogue and exchanges come so fast, that any extraneous movements will take away from the weight of the text. Consequently, the actors are often static on stage firing line after line in one position. This non-movement, if you will, actually draws the audience into the story and its characters. When delivered in this way, Mamet’s plays offer the actor little choice regarding movement. Better to stand in one place and deliver the retort, in my view. This is not to say that Cohen, Peddle and Wilson are stiff, quite the contrary. Their choices are thoughtful, simple and accurate. At no time did I think anyone was out of place or in an illogical place on stage. The cast had great energy and maintained it effectively for 90 minutes.

In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet’s characters are full of surprises and their behaviour is never predictable which is why actors like to play them and audiences like to watch them. David Mamet is a playwright in the great tradition of dialogue-driven theatre. His style relies on a few technical devices, such as repetition and faux Socratic questioning, but ultimately, it’s about the characters: what they feel and think and believe.

Soulpepper’s production of Speed-the-Plow continues until September 22nd.

I highly recommend it.

 John Corcelli is a broadcaster and occasional theatre director and actor. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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