Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic has given London another smash, this time a revival that flirts with being the definitive production of David Mamet’s brimstone-tinged 1988 satire of Hollywood culture, “Speed-the-Plow.” The hectic, jiving, over-the-top performances of Jeff Goldblum and Spacey himself are by turns obnoxious, scary, hilarious, and pathetic, but always superb, as was the actor-producer’s notion to bring two American film stars to play Hollywood buddies, two coffee-and-coke-addled bottom-feeding producers with the prospect of a commercial hit, along with attendant riches, booty, and opportunities for revenge, finally close at hand. The actors are so riveting, all overlapping dialogue and with a physical performance that the stage seems more a gym, and Mamet’s dialogue so kinetic, that they camoflage the fact that this is a thin, almost insubstantial play, in the form of a fractured parable object lesson.
Spacey’s Charlie Fox bursts into the studio office of his old friend Bobby Gould (Goldblum) to announce he’s got his hands on a hot script—”it has blood, action, a social theme.” Bobby a newly knighted executive, a species with a life expectancy akin to a first lieutenant in a trench at Ypres, listens intently, and when he hears that Dougie Brown, a much sought after actor has agreed to take the part, or in their Hollywood journeyman parlance, “to cross the street,” Bobby explodes. With Dougie on board the film will be not just another exploitive piece of junk about prison rape, but box office gold. Charlie only has Dougie’s commitment for 24 hours, but Bobby is scheduled to meet with the president of production the next morning. Their ship has come in. “We’re going to have to hire someone to tell us how to spend our money.” This calls for celebration, compliments (“You old whore”), this calls for coffee! Bobby rings for Karen (Laura Michelle Kelly), his temporary assistant, an unsullied ingenue hired, though she can’t work the phone or make coffee and doesn’t recognize the studio president’s name when he calls, because she looks good in a sweater. This, by the way, was the role implausibly filled by Madonna when she made her acting debut at the drama’s premiere in NY’s Lincoln Center. Charlie comments that if they put this one over Bobby ought to get so rich he’d be able to get a girl like her. Bobby, seriously miffed and mock-disillusioned, responds that it’s possible she’d like him for his own self. Long pause, return to reality, they laugh.
It’s not all backslapping and misogynistic secretary-ogling, however; there’s work to be done. The studio president has asked Bobby to provide a report, a “courtesy read,” on a “worthy” literary novel by a “cissy east coast writer”—a poetically written story about radiation, religion, and the end of the world, a pretentious-sounding work that sounds like just another… pardon my lingua franca… “piece of *&#@.” Bobby delegates the reading and reporting to Karen, and his work is done for the day.
Upon that implausible literary novel, and the question of whether Karen could like, and make herself available to, Bobby for himself, this story turns. Between an exploitive piece of trash and an equally hollow pretentious bit of junk, the play sets a not exactly Faustian pitting of Art vs. Commerce, though Mamet does an accurate if grotesque caricature of the overlapping warp and woof of how such dream-peddlars speak. What’s more, the play offers the occasion for one of the greatest theatrical pairings since Matthau and Lemon in “The Odd Couple.”
The Old Vic, London SE1, Until late Aril. Box Office 0870 060 6628