For a guy who's had more than his fair share of success in Hollywood, David Mamet sure is grumpy with the industry that's feathered his nest. In 2007, with a couple dozen screenwriting and/or directing credits under his belt, Mamet wrote a book called Bambi vs. Godzilla. The conclusion of this collection of clever and acerbic essays was, essentially, that just about everyone in the movie business is a destructive force of nature, and the world would be a good deal better off if the lot of them were lined up against a wall and shot.
This was entertaining, if old, news in 2007, which makes the current production of Mamet's 1988 three-act, three-person play about Hollywood, Speed-the-Plow, now through January 24 at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, feel a bit like a trip in the Wayback Machine. Even before HBO's Entourage and a pair of films about Hollywood by Mamet himself (Wag the Dog, 1997, and State and Main, 2000), most of us were overly familiar with Tinseltown's reputation for duplicity and slime. There was Robert Altman's movie The Player (1992); Sam Shepard's play True West (1980), which the director of this production, Ray Renati, also directed at the Pear a couple of seasons ago; Budd Schulberg's novel What Makes Sammy Run? (1941); and countless razor-sharp barbs by Ben Hecht, the first screenwriter to win an Academy Award (1927).
Given all this history, I'd like to think that Speed-the-Plow is more than yet another tale of the insincerity of Hollywood types. It must also be a parable about people in any walk of life struggling with their desire to do good work as economic forces conspire to turn them into whores, right? Wrong. Speed-the-Plow features lots of terrific writing, and this production is well directed and contains a trio of fine performances, but the play itself is first and last a vehicle for Mamet's love-hate relationship with Hollywood, an infantile obsession he has done little to disguise.
When we first meet recently named production head Bobby Gould (Paul Loomis) and his loyal henchman Charlie Fox (Jake Vincent), the two men are heaping fawning and fake praise on one another. They delight in their reputations as men who have made careers out of their ability to bend over in exchange for wheelbarrows of cash. In one memorable scene, we squirm at their vulgarity, primarily because it's uttered so shamelessly in the presence of a young office temp named Karen (Sarah Griner). Despite her lack of dialogue in the scene, this is a strong entrance for Griner, who stands uncomfortably but professionally at attention, coffee tray in hand, as her older, male superiors verbally wrestle over bragging rights to the title of Hollywood's biggest prostitute.
Fox has dropped in to check out his mentor's new digs, as well as to dump a sure-fire hit in his lap. Both men can practically taste the box office receipts, and Fox, the more financially desperate of the two, begins carving up the corpse before it's even cold. This is a good gambit on Mamet's part -- by focusing on Fox's preoccupation with money and power, we momentarily forget that money and power are precisely the definitions of success in Hollywood.
At first, we are meant to think that Karen, with all her innocent questions about why everything in Hollywood has to be garbage, is the guileless muse that Gould may have been looking for all his life. Fortunately Vincent's ruthless Fox brings the inexplicably vulnerable Gould to his senses before Karen can turn him to the dark side, which in this case means green-lighting an overwrought novel filled with idiotic premises that anyone with half a brain can see will tank. Fox is the hero because he's true to himself and his swampy milieu, which, as Mamet and those who came before him have repeatedly pointed out, ain't saying much.
Speed-The-Plow runs through January 24, 2010 at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View. For tickets and information, visit thepear.org.