Venality vs Purity in Tinseltown

The strength of most plays by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet lies in his characters, the moral murk in which they often exist and, above all, the laser-like precision of his dialogue.

With the possible exception of his screenplay, Wag the Dog, plot is not Mamet’s long suit.

Speed-The-Plow, his 1988 satire about the shallowness and venality of Hollywood, is no exception.

The Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble production of Speed-The-Plow ends its run this weekend, before moving on to North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre in early March.

With award-winning Vancouver director Sarah Rodgers at the helm, and a trio of highly talented local actors onstage, it is an evening of fast-paced, funny, biting and cynical fare.

But a great plot it’s not.

Charlie Fox, played by Eric Epstein, is an irritating little schnorrer who has been dog-paddling for years in the backwaters of the movie biz with little to show for it.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, a heavy-hitter named Douglas Brown appears on his doorstep offering to star in a prison film based on a script Charlie had unearthed in the studio’s files.

The script is pure schlock. Translation: Hollywood gold.

The only hitch is that Charlie has just 24 hours to get the green light from his long-time pal and protector, Bobby Gould (Aaron Nelken), the studio’s newly-minted Head of Production.

If he can’t come through, Brown will take the offer “across the street” to a competing studio.

Charlie bursts into Bobby’s office and makes his pitch. Bobby immediately sets up a meeting with the studio boss, first cautioning Charlie not to talk too much.

“Here’s how we play it. We get in, get out, give it to him in one sentence: Doug Brown, buddy film,” he insists.

“If you can’t tell the story in one line, how are they going to put it in TV Guide?”

Much back-slapping and badinage ensues as ever-multiplying dollar signs ring up in the minds’ eyes of these little boys in suits.

For Bobby, it looks like a coup in his new position. For Charlie, it’s a ticket to wealth and an end to tagging along on Bobby’s coattails.

Bobby, meanwhile, has a small task to perform for his boss: a “courtesy read” of a rambling, arcane novel called The Bridge, about radiation and the imminent end of the world as we know it.

It’s a book clearly without traction in Tinseltown.

“If it’s not quite art and it’s not quite entertainment, it’s here on my desk. I have inherited a monster,” Bobby complains.

Enter Karen, the “cute broad” from the temp agency, played with finishing-school poise by Jessica Hickman in her first Whitehorse appearance.

When she grudgingly professes some interest in a show biz career, Bobby palms the novel off on her. She agrees to read it and deliver a report to his apartment that evening.

Unbeknownst to Karen, Bobby and Charlie have a $500 bet riding on whether or not Bobby’s casting couch will see some action. These are Mamet-type guys.

Naturally, Karen loves the book. Wineglass in hand, she urges Bobby to take it on, appealing to a hidden spark within him that yearns to rise above the muck.

By the next morning, Bobby is a changed man. But will he find the “purity” he seeks (which he could never discuss with his pal, Charlie)?

Will Karen’s seeming altruism prevail, or will Charlie get to deliver the prison-house goods and finally break out of the bush league?

That is what final scenes are for, even in a tissue-thin Mamet plot which, particularly in this case, speeds to a questionable resolution.

The performances from all three actors in this production are uniformly strong, although Epstein and Nelken would both do well to provide a bit more vocal shading to their characters, especially in the first scene.

Even in the high-energy world of Hollywood, where everyone from agent to studio head is essentially playing a role from dawn to dusk, the art of manipulation occasionally calls for nuance.

Only in the last scene do Bobby and Charlie exhibit some welcome human frailty.

Kevin McAllister’s set is sparse, but effective.

With a few well-chosen pieces of furniture, some bankers’ boxes and a paint bucket hinting at how recently Bobby has moved up to his new digs, some metallic venetian blinds and an acting area defined by a large white circle, McAllister has created a credible upscale office.

With some slight rearranging performed by the cast between scenes – brilliantly choreographed by Rodgers (caution: strobe lights at work) – it becomes an equally effective bachelor apartment.

Kaori Torigai’s costumes are so authentic you might forget to notice them, but will probably remember them long afterward.

The attention to detail by both Rodgers and Epstein (who is also Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble’s artistic director) extends to the Hollywood themed pre-show and entr’acte music, and even to the show’s poster.

That poster is a cleverly-rendered homage to the promotional poster for a 1970s film based on the Nathaniel West novel, Day of the Locust, about life on the fringes of Depression-era Hollywood.

Speed-The-Plow runs nightly at the Guild Hall until January 29. Curtain is 8 pm. There is also a matinee performance Saturday at 4 pm.

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