THE BASICS: SPEED-THE-PLOW, a “dramatic comedy” by David Mamet, directed by Scott Behrend, starring Matt Witten, Kevin Kennedy, and Laura Barriere opened on October 26 and runs through November 18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at Road Less Traveled Theater’s new home, 456 Main Street (near Court) (629-3069). www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org Run time: a little under 90 minutes without intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Bobby Gould (Matt Witten) has just been promoted to head of production at a major Hollywood studio where he’s looking for potential block-buster scripts. Suddenly his No. 2 guy, Charlie Fox (Kevin Kennedy), bursts in with news that movie star Doug Brown wants to jump studios to make an “action buddy film” set in a prison. It’s trash, and they know it, but it will make them both rich, and, more important to Charlie, will finally get him the respect in Hollywood he craves along with his “name above the title.”
As the two wait for “the temp,” Karen (Laura Barriere) to bring coffee, Bobby tells Charlie about a book that studio head Richard Ross gave him, asking for a “courtesy read” (meaning that it will never seriously be in contention to be produced). After Karen leaves, Charlie makes a $500 bet that Bobby can’t seduce the naïve Karen. And Bobby hatches a plan to have Karen do the “courtesy read,” then come to his apartment that night, and pitch the book to him.
Karen does come to Bobby’s apartment and she’s on fire about the book, all about radiation and the end of the world, which, from various sections read by the actors, we in the audience understand to be errant nonsense. But, she’s so convincing that back at the office, Bobby blind-sides Charlie with news that he’s now considering dropping the guaranteed box office success of the Doug Brown prison movie in favor of the more culturally important radiation story. Oh boy.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Welcome to the world of David Mamet. Imagine a roller coaster ride in which the ups and downs, swoops and curves, and even moments of weightlessness don’t happen sequentially, but all at once. That was my SPEED-THE-PLOW experience at the slightly delayed but well worth the wait “Curtain Up!” production at Road Less Traveled’s new permanent home at 456 Main Street.
And what a home it is! Very classy, with only 100 seats so everyone gets a great view, with an interior built entirely from scratch, designed by Doug Behrend specifically for the kinds of intimate dramas that Road Less Traveled is known for.
One of the reasons playwright David Mamet is so revered is that you think you know what’s going on, and you do, but you don’t.
But, back to the play. One of the reasons playwright David Mamet is so revered is that you think you know what’s going on, and you do, but you don’t. Director Scott Behrend gets this and lets you think that this is a play about Bobby. That character gets first mention in the playbill, the play opens in his office with his new title on the door, but when you go to see SPEED-THE-PLOW, just remember that, even though the men on stage seem to disparage “buddy films” this is a buddy play, complete with the cliché of the female entering their world and upsetting the apple cart. So pay attention to Charlie Fox (Kevin Kennedy).
You’ve seen buddy stories dozens of times before, but with Mamet, you just never know, do you? That’s one reason this work which opened on Broadway in 1988 was revived in 2008, and why it’s a play that, an any moment, is always being produced somewhere in America. It’s a favorite of small theaters and one reason is economics. The sets and costumes are not elaborate, and the script only calls for three actors: 2 male and 1 female. The real challenge, which Road Less Traveled Productions rose to, is casting, because there is a lot, and I mean A LOT of dialog to memorize and then deliver with rapid-fire, split second timing. This so-called “Mamet-speak” is what he’s known for. If you’re interested, here’s a pdf of the 1988 script.
I mention 1988 because a few of the topical references have been updated since, including that $10 million, which sounded like a lot in 1988, has been changed to $50 million in 2018, and “A & P” (remember the supermarkets?) has been changed to “Whole Foods.” But, other than that, as with all great theater, it’s timeless. To quote from a famous Hollywood movie: “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die” along with “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
One fundamental thing that applies here is the age-old sage advice to writers: write what you know, from your own experience, and Mamet has a foot in both the world of theater (about a dozen and a half plays including a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner) and the world of Hollywood (writer/director on seven films). Mamet loves exposing the cynical, crass, commercial underbelly of American enterprise, whether it’s real estate in GLENGARRY, GLEN, ROSS or Hollywood in SPEED-THE-PLOW. As always with Mamet, to quote from another movie from another time: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
If Carson Kressley were writing this, he might point out one flaw in the production, and it’s not just a Road Less Traveled problem. It’s a Buffalo thing. It’s the look and cut and tailoring of the suits that are worn by male actors portraying supposedly successful men. In this particular case Bobby Gould’s costumes just don’t say “Hollywood.” I know budgets are tight and costume designers don’t have racks of Armani suits in storage. Still, I’m hoping that some middle ground can be achieved.
By the way, if you’re curious about the title, “God speed the plow” is both a 15th century prayer, to God, for good luck, for prosperity, and for commercial success (in farming or any venture), but it’s also a phrase uttered during “Plough Monday” (the first Monday after 12th night) when farm laborers, “ploughmen,” long before crowdsourcing on the internet was available, would dress in white and go door to door soliciting money to fund their celebrations.
UP NEXT: THREE MUSKETEERS (November 1-18) at Shea’s 710 Theatre from the “All for One” consortium of five theaters, including Road Less Traveled (tickets).
Then, back at their new space at 456 Main Street, it’s THE ILLUSION (January 18 – February 10, 2019) by the award-winning Tony Kushner.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!