Feb. 21 SU Drama: Speed the Plow

Photo by Michael Davis

Photo by Michael Davis

SU Drama’s ‘Speed the Plow’ takes the audience on a rollicking ride through frenetically paced dialogue

Despite some unevenness, SU Drama’s mounting of David Mamet’s satire of Hollywood comes off as timely and relevant as its 1988 debut

By Michael O’Connor

On the surface, Speed the Plow appears to explore the incompatibility of art and commerce. But much like the façade of naiveté worn by the play’s temporary secretary Karen and the callous exterior of the Hollywood executive Bobby Gould, something more complex is lurking beneath the surface.  The present SU Drama production of David Mamet’s satire on Hollywood forges a credible exploration of power, performance and masculinity within the interpersonal and professional relationships of two men.

Mamet’s play centers on a long-term friendship and professional relationship between newly promoted Hollywood executive Bobby Gould (Alex Thompson) and his coattail-riding underling Charlie Fox (Tyler Wiseman).  Their long history and close relationship is evidenced by the comfortable banter they engage in throughout the first scene, as an ebullient Fox arrives at Gould’s office to tell him that actor Doug Brown is interested in directing one of Fox’s film scripts.

The film, a prison/buddy story described with a formulaic mish mash of big budget cinema tropes and no coherent storyline, is paired against The Bridge: or Radiation and the Half-life of Society — an art house project from an “eastern sissy writer” for which Gould has agreed to a courtesy read (meaning he has no intention of producing it).  The choice between these two projects boils down to a choice between artistic worth verses commercial viability.

The play is at its best during the scenes between Thompson and Wiseman. The action and motion of the play are provided by frenetically paced and expletive-laced dialogue between these two men, who frequently cut each other off mid-sentence — all we have come to expect and love from a Mamet play.  Their conversation has the rhythm and cadences of everyday speech, heightened to fevered pitch by Fox’s cocaine-fueled excitement and Gould’s macho bravado.

Wiseman’s Fox captures his character’s excitement, greed and lust for power while subtly noting the real affection he feels for his counterpart.  And Thompson’s Gould performs a masculine sense of privilege to mask underlying fears of inadequacy — subtly asserting his power over Fox through a locker-room camaraderie that is only possible between close male friends.

Codes of hyper masculinity make it impossible for the two to show their genuine affection for each other, so they resort instead to sexualized (and often misogynistic and homophobic) repartee.  When the two eventually come to blows over the course of power shifts within the relationship, the battle has impact precisely because the relationship and history displayed in this scene transcends the surface-level discussion of crass commercialism and Hollywood power.

Scenic designer Alex Peterson heightens the play’s motifs of male bonding, sexual innuendo and masculine privilege through a masterful use of set construction.

Throughout this scene the left side of the stage is dominated by a sepia screen that acts as a room divider between Gould’s office and that of his temporary secretary Karen (sensuously played by Hannah Daly).  By backlighting Daly the audience sees a clearly defined shadow of Karen pantomiming the stereotypical actions of the sexualized secretary.  She puts on make-up, thumbs slowly through a book, leans forward and arches back like a shadow play of a scene from the hit TV show Mad Men — a cultural reference further heightened by costume designer Alexander Koziara’s use of a short tight skirt and high stiletto heels.

All these actions are performed at a slow, exaggerated pace that renders even the most prosaic actions sexually suggestive.  Rather than providing a counterpoint to the testoserone-charged banter between Gould and Fox, this shadow is the absent presence of sexualized femininity that undergirds their conversation.  When Daly steps out onto the stage near the end of the first scene, she has already been cast as an icon of female sexuality.  We are not surprised, then, when Gould bets Fox he will succeed in seducing her.

The wager sets in motion not only the conflict between Gould and Fox, but the development of Karen from a symbol into a character (though tellingly her lack of a last name suggests she will never fully reach this individuation.)  In the second scene Karen takes the sexual initiative and turns the tables on Gould — both professionally and personally.  She plays on his fears of inadequacy until he agrees at last to produce the art house project instead of the surefire Hollywood blockbuster.  As the third scene plays out we find Gould torn not just between Karen and Charlie (and related feelings of loyalty and love) but also between the desire for artistic and commercial success.  Along with heightened self worth and social power.

The field on which the two principal characters struggle is one already determined by the codes of masculinity used to interact with one other. That the climactic violence and ensuing revelations bring about only a reversal of individual power and a reassertion of the underlying structure is hardly surprising.  Though Fox describes Gould as the titular turtle from Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, Mamet’s Speed the Plow ends with a mere substitution of turtles at the top — not a toppling of the tower.  Turtles will, it appears, continue to be turtles.

While admirable in many ways, this SU Drama production feels a bit unfinished and unpolished. Though Wiseman’s Charlie Fox was the most engaging and nuanced performance of the production, his fidgeting and pacing throughout the play was over-the-top and distracting.  Throughout the nervous excitement and cocaine-fueled energy, this was a young actor still honing his craft and learning how to move about the stage.

The role of Bobby Gould requires a more understated performance than that of Charlie Fox, and when paired with Wiseman, Thompson did a fine job as Gould — holding up his end of the verbal sparring and delivering his lines with the speed necessary to drive the momentum of the play.  When Wiseman was not on stage, however, Thompson was required to shoulder more of the burden of the drama and his portrayal sagged.  (Scene two, the only scene without Wiseman, was noticeably less engaging than scenes one and three.)

The production also had difficulty in transitioning Karen from a symbol to an actual character.  Though Daly’s portrayal captures symbolic sensuality in the first scene, it does not translate convincingly to Karen’s emergence as an individual.  This difficulty was partly due to direction and partly due to portrayal.  Daly’s performance is torn between representing the male sexual fantasy of a secretary and representing a fully developed person with her own agenda and agency.

On multiple occasions, Karen professes naiveté.  But this professed innocence belies her image as a sexual symbol, both behind the screen and when out from behind it.  The coquettish body language Daly employs as she performs her duties of secretary is too stylized for her claimed cluelessness about the workings of the world, and the costume she wears is overly sexualized for the ingénue she supposedly portrays.  As a result, her transition to sexual aggressor appears less than surprising, and the revelation that she was manipulating Gould lacked all credibility.

Perhaps the least convincing moment in the production is the fistfight in Scene Three.  The physical altercation as Charlie challenges Bobby’s power, which this production chose to portray as a fistfight, involved a stage punch that was poorly executed, thus spoiling the power of the moment.  A less difficult to choreograph fight might not have been as spectacular, but would have been far easier to execute.

As the production moves through its run I expect many of these issues will be resolved.  But even as it stands now, this SU Drama effort keeps the audience entertained and excited through its use of biting humor and verbal gymnastics.  The biggest surprise to me though was how timely and current the play felt.  This contemporary feel to Speed the Plow lies not in its critique of Hollywood’s vacuity, which has become a well-traveled road in the 25 years since this play debuted, but in the play’s careful dissection of the coded interpersonal interactions between the two men.

Despite the need for a bit more polish, Syracuse University Drama’s Speed the Plow is a rollicking ride that remains meaningful and relevant to contemporary audiences.

Details Box:
WhatSpeed the Plow by David Mamet, directed by Rob Bundy
Who: Syracuse University Drama Department
Where: Arthur Storch Theater/SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
When:  February 21, 2014

Remaining performances: Through March 2
Length:  About 2 hours and 5 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $19 ($17 students)
Call 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide:  Adult themes, frequent profanity

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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