The 20th anniversary production on Broadway of David Mamet’s famous dissection of Hollywood, Speed-the-Plow, raises a burning question: In publicizing the play, has Mr. Mamet finally gone off his rocker?
His quite recent public conversion from a self-described “brain dead liberal” into some kind of neo-conservative pedagogue isn’t at issue here—except for his espousal of free market self-interest and greed. Profit (at any cost) is the theme of Speed-the-Plow, though the renowned dramatist put it differently in his Sept. 3 New York Times article, “Drama that Brings Home the Bacon,” which rationalized and plugged his play, and left me wondering about his sanity.
“What is the difference between Work and Art, and how is one to draw the line?” he asks. “That is the essential question of Speed-the-Plow.”
If by Work he means scumbag producers selling crass movies to a gullible public, then his enjoyable (and slight) 80-minute comedy is indeed about Work. And if so, drawing the line between Work and Art ought to be no big deal. There’s a difference between King Lear and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
King Lear is the one that doesn’t take place in Mexico.
But as I see it, Speed-the-Plow isn’t about solemn philosophical questions like Work and Art. It’s about the art of the con—the dominant theme in Mr. Mamet’s work. Speed-the-Plow’s powerful new studio head, Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven), and his hustling supplicant, Charlie Fox (Raul Esparza), are little different in their soulless essentials from the lowlifes trying to make a buck in American Buffalo (1975) or the scummy real estate salesman and sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross (1982). Fear motivates them all as much as turning a profit. Bobby and Charlie live in a moral void green-lighting lousy films to make money—impure and simple. “Great big jolly shitloads of it,” as Bobby says.
They grow rich by fulfilling a public need. Or as Mr. Mamet explains in the Times: “c.f. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’: each man seeks his own self-interest, and the overall result is an increase in general prosperity.”
Far from Speed-the-Plow being a moral fable or lethal satire of venal Hollywood, as is commonly believed; it’s clearer than ever that Mr. Mamet intended it to celebrate Hollywood’s worst values.
The playwright, who first worked in Hollywood many years ago, happily says as much in the Times piece:
“I found that the movies (and television) are an industry, staffed by craven business types interested only in making a buck.
“And I found further a) that I am one of them; and b) that it’s a grand idea that the industry is such.”
“Life in the movie business,” says Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow, “is like the … is like the beginning of a new love affair; it’s full of surprises, and you’re constantly getting fucked.”
“But why should it all be garbage?” asks Karen, who is Gould’s apparently naïve temp secretary.
“Why? Why should nickels be bigger than dimes? That’s the way it is.”
“It’s a business, with its own unchanging rules,” says Gould finally. “Isn’t that right, Charlie?”
KAREN (ELISABETH MOSS) is potentially the coolest con artist of the three. (In Mamet plays, men are the vulnerable ones; women the real killers.) Karen claims she believes in “art” to improve people’s lives. She pitches Gould an idea for a movie based on an apocalyptic novel he’s already rejected as the unfilmable work of an “Eastern sissy writer.” Titled The Bridge: or Radiation and the Half Life of Society. A Study of Decay, it’s an allegory about the end of civilization, redemption and God.