In David Mamet’s masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross (seen a few years back at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre) ace salesman Ricky Roma delivers a sublimely devious spiel, couched in existential nonsense, with which he convinces some poor sap to buy worthless land in Florida.
In Mamet’s funny-but-lesser Speed-the-Plow, which launches Soulpepper’s current summer season, a temp secretary named Karen pulls off an equally brilliant pitch.
Karen (Sarah Wilson) has been asked by her boss, Hollywood studio honcho Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen), to give a “courtesy read” to an artsy-fartsy apocalypse novel he has no intention of turning into a movie. The reading is just a ploy to get in her pants. But Karen turns the tables on Bobby. She gives such an impassioned endorsement for the book that, beguiled by her combination of sincerity and sexiness, he decides to green-light the project.
The scene between the two of them – the centrepiece of Mamet’s scathing one-act satire – is the richest in this otherwise lightweight production. Wilson’s Karen, breathless and giddy with ardour, quotes the book’s pseudo-visionary passages with the conviction of a newly converted disciple. And Cohen’s shallow Gould, grinning bemusedly, is visibly unable to parse the difference between the nonsense he’s hearing and the beautiful way it’s being slung. Clearly, he’s hooked and she’s just reeling him in.
Or is she? Karen is one of Mamet’s notoriously enigmatic females and it’s never clear how much she really believes in the book, or if she has an ulterior motive. It doesn’t matter, though, because she’s doing just as much of a sales job on Bobby as her rival for his attentions – his old pal, the producer Charlie Fox (Jordan Pettle).
The play opens with Charlie arriving in his friend’s new office. Bobby’s just been elevated to head of production and Charlie has a gift for him – he’s got an A-list star who’s champing at the bit to make an action script that Charlie has optioned. If Bobby gets it green-lit by the studio, it’s guaranteed to make him and Charlie a fortune.
These two self-described “whores” are fairly cackling with avaricious glee when timid Karen shows up, bearing coffee, and punctures their fantasies with questions about values and principles. They find her naivety amusing and Charlie later bets five C-notes that Bobby can’t seduce her. There follows the reverse seduction I’ve just described.
Speed-the-Plow had its Broadway premiere in 1988 and has remained a favourite both for its easy target – Hollywood greed and moral vacuity – and its two cranked up male roles. Its 20th anniversary, in 2008, saw starry revivals in New York (with Entourage’s Jeremy Piven as Bobby) and at London’s Old Vic, where old lions Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum took turns mauling the scenery. For this Soulpepper version, director David Storch sticks closer to film-biz reality, casting two actors who are more like the kind of young Turks making the big deals in Tinseltown these days. It helps explain both their callowness and the ease with which Bobby is “played” by a pretty woman.
You only wish Cohen and Pettle had more of the ugly macho vitality their parts require. In their obscenity-riddled conversations – more like exchanges of machine-gun fire – Pettle makes the strongest impression. His undersized, overexcited Charlie Fox is entertaining as he turns on a dime from braggart to sycophant and then back again. But when, enraged by his buddy’s betrayal, he rains misogynistic insults upon him, he sounds silly. Cohen’s Bobby, meanwhile, only really comes alive when he’s having his conscience awakened by Karen.
As a consequence, Karen becomes a more equal character here. The role has had a bad rap ever since Madonna played it, in her usual wooden style, in the original Broadway production. Wilson, however, reveals the temp to be funnier and more intriguing than we’d realized. Maybe having had to play the most impossible of Mamet’s women, the student Carol in Soulpepper’s 2011 revival of Oleanna, has sharpened Wilson’s chops.
Storch, who also directed the company’s hit Glengarry Glen Ross, supplies a solid if unimaginative staging, matched by Dana Osbourne’s set and costumes. There are a few attempts to update the play – Charlie now carries a smartphone – but they aren’t really necessary. The crass, money-driven image of Hollywood that Mamet offers hasn’t changed. It is, in fact, as old as Hollywood itself. And if a producer there gets an urge to make something significant and artistic, Mamet asserts, it must be a temporary lapse of sanity.
Speed-the-Plow runs until Sept. 22.
Special to The Globe and Mail