SPEED THE PLOW
Directed by Carole Robinson & Christian Phillips
Starring Joseph Napoli, Dean Shreiner & Sydney Gamble
Actor’s Theatre never fails to amaze me. Christian Phillips manages by some miracle of talent and determination to put up truly compelling productions of American classics that speak to every generation. He does this on a minuscule budget in a tiny, spare theater void of any pretentious décor.
In this production of SPEED THE PLOW, he and his co-director Carole Robinson have gone far beyond their previous successes. Their interpretation of David Mamet’s classic tale of unscrupulous greed and ambition has elevated this excellent script into a work of art that cannot help but mesmerize with its rapid fire dialogue across a stark almost empty stage. There is very little movement on stage, but every gesture makes an impact. The program notes tell us that “Mamet’s plays often deal with the decline of morality in a world which as become an emotional and spiritual wasteland,” and the bleak stage with its bare walls is the ideal setting for a play whose central theme is how easily our souls are bought . All three characters in the play are merciless and narcissistic human beings without a shred of compassion for one another.
Let us talk first about the actors. It is hard to believe that these three people are not among the top performers in the bay area, so professional were the interpretations of their characters. Dean Shreiner’s Bobby Gould is right on the mark. He is a self-serving, greedy movie producer whose eye is always on profit at the expense of art. As the play develops, we see beneath his brittle crust to the insecure, needy man beneath. When, in the third act, we realize he has succumbed to Karen (Sydney Gamble)’s seduction, he says, “She understands that I suffer,” and his persona visibly softens. The audience can see his vulnerability and feel his desperate need to do something “good” with his life. ”You look forward to your life and you think it’s never going to happen. Deep down inside I never thought it would,” he says.
And Charlie (Joe Napoli) replies “You’re a whore, Bob.” And he is right. The reality is that Bobby has compensated for that need to be special by being rapacious and hard- nosed in an industry where sentimentality is a death knoll.
Joe Napoli’s Charlie is perfection times ten. His verbal pace is amazing, his expressions validate his words and his presence on the stage is mesmerizing. He obviously sees himself as he really is and he likes his image. ”If I’m just a slave to commerce, I’m nothing…” because for him, the selling and making movies is an exciting and dangerous game that he intends to win no matter what the cost. “We all hope,” he tells Charlie. “That’s what keeps us alive.”
Sydney Gamble is a student at The Academy of Art in San Francisco but in this production she has the professional polish of an actress twice her age and four times her experience. Her Karen combines an innocence with a hard core that is fascinating to watch and always believable. When she visits Bobby to talk about the vapid script she just read, one senses that she knows as well as he does that it is not commercial. Her purpose in going to his flat was to better herself, not to report on the script. She has set her sights on producing that film with him and so she hits him where he is weakest: his self esteem. “We are all frightened, she says. “I listened to your heart and I saw you. You were put in the world to make movies people need to see.“ (In direct contrast to Charlie’s pronouncement in the first act when he tells Bobby, ”Your job is to make movies that make money.”)
Karen knows she has scored a hit with Bobby when she appeals to his better self and she pursues her advantage by telling him she knew why he asked her to his apartment and she is willing to pay the price. She knows it will get her exactly what she wants. She says, “You asked me to come. Here I am.”
There is not a trace of the coquette in her interpretation of her role. Her speech seems innocent and altruistic and yet everyone in the audience knows exactly what she is. We see in her very presence that she has a goal and that goal will serve her purpose, alone. That is acting taken to its best level.
“When the curtain falls on this short and unsparing study of sharks in the shallows of the movie industry, it's as if you had stepped off a world-class roller coaster. The ride was over before you knew it, but you're too dizzy and exhilarated to think you didn't get your money's worth,” says Ben Brantley in his New York Times review of the production of the play in 2008 on Broadway. “The slangy, zingy patter of exaggerated insult and tribute swapped by the studio executives Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox isn't just air filler; it's the existential warp and woof of their lives. ….''Speed-the-Plow'' is about what happens when the shiny bubble produced by this talk is punctured by someone who doesn't speak the language.”
And that sums up this Actors Theatre production, as well. It is a polished, glistening gem of a play that shows us what we are beneath the veneer we assume in public. Mamet sees us all as base creatures ready to sell every value for a pot of gold. One walks out of one of his plays furious at the human condition and perhaps it is that fury…and that fury alone…that will spur us on to make ourselves better.
If you love theater, you will want to se this production of SPEED THE PLOW again and again. It is everything fine dramatization should be from the first words spoken on that stage until the last.
Plays until November 10th, 2012; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm.
Venue: Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush St, Between Taylor and Mason
Box Office: (415) 345-1287 or online at DramaList.com
Tickets: General: $38, Students & Seniors: $26