David Mamet's play, Speed The Plow, is already short at a mere 95 minutes long, but the show zooms by in an instant. Before you know what's hit you, it's over. You're left with this "what the hell just happened?" feeling. At the center of the show is an ominous book titled, "The Bridge..." and it becomes like a fourth cast member. The other three, Jeremy Piven, Raül Esparza, and Elizabeth Moss spend the hour and a half on stage bantering back and forth about money, power, sex, and the end of the world. If it sounds a little pretentious, that's because it is, but the three leads make such compelling comic performances, it's hard to find many faults with the show or choosing to spend your time watching it. At first look, fans of Jeremy Piven's Ari on Entourage may be surprised that in STP he plays the lesser of the two evils. His character, Bobby Gould, is a recently promoted production head for a film company. His long time friend and business inferior/ultimate Hollywood schmuck, Charlie Fox (Esparza) brings him a "Dougie Brown" film to green light, which will inevitably make them both rich (but probably has the caliber of a Fast and the Furious flick). The show begins with the excitement both men feel at being able to finally rub their success in the faces of anyone who doubted them. Enter Karen (Moss), an attractive temporary worker, who throws a wrench into the happy moment by simply reading a book.
In Charlie and Bobby's world, success is measured by the amount of money made, and neither man seems to have qualms with being deemed a "whore." But upon Karen's naive (her favorite word) suggestion that success can be measured by taking the moral high ground, Bobby finds himself questioning everything he's ever done. The play unfolds in three short acts over the course of two days. It feels like it could be a legitimate moment in the life of any film executive, only pointedly humorous. You watch them all banter each other to a pulp, and wonder what the point is. The play itself, in many ways, reflects the "Dougie Brown" film Bobby and Charlie attempt to green light; pure, somewhat vapid entertainment that uses star power to get people in the seats. While it covers some interesting material (i.e. misogyny, Armageddon, etc.) the reason to go see it lies in the witty table tennis style repartee (think "Gilmore Guys"). For anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to sit in a Hollywood studio exec's office in the '80's, now is your chance. And it's probably what you might expect; pats on the back, trash talk sugar coated in curse words, and an abominable number of cigarettes (which make the audience smell of sandalwood incense). You would think that with only three characters and a limited plot line, the overall feeling of the play would be intimate. However, seeing as everyone in Hollywood is an actor at their core, the only real intimacy felt is a brief moment of true confusion from Elizabeth Moss' character. There is no intimacy, and any friendship or attraction you see is feigned in an attempt for the characters to fool themselves into thinking they have actually attained real connections. Speed the Plow can easily feel like a dated expose on the superficiality of show business, but ultimately it's about a desperate need for connection and seeming impossibility of finding a real one.
Even though I went into the show as a fan of all three actors, I most wanted to see incomparable Jeremy Piven live. But in a surprising twist, he is relatively upstaged by Broadway counterpart Raül Esparza (it probably helped that Esparza got most of the great one-liners). Esparza commands the stage from the moment he struts out, showcasing his impeccable comedic timing and line delivery. You can not help but admire his affliction of bluntness. Essentially, he is Ari Gold to a tee. While this might be unsettling for Entourage fans, I think we can all understand why Piven, who surely must have been offered the part of Fox, decided to play Gould instead. He's already won three consecutive Emmys as Ari, so the public knows he can pull that off with his eyes closed. Playing Gould however, allowed for audiences to see a slightly softened Piven, still jive talking and running his mouth off, but in a much more conservative withheld manor. We even get to see him feel lost, something Ari would never allow (even in the most dire of circumstances). I have to commend Piven on this, because despite his name being the big pull in the program, he steps ever so slightly back and allows for Esparza to blow past him. You can sense a real camaraderie between these two actors, a mutual agreement to work as a team. This partnership might have made things awkward for the female star, but luckily Elizabeth Moss is a pro, and clearly able to hold her own. Moss, who has received accolades for her portrayal of Peggy on AMC's Mad Men, steps into the role as dutiful, yet ambitious secretary once again. During her second act monologue, she plays Karen as slightly tipsy and overwhelmed by having read "The Bridge...". At first her incoherence of spoken thoughts feels endless and even annoying, but slowly you begin to see everything she says and does is a calculated move. Once this realization comes, you have to step back and really pat Moss on that back. She is able to play both innocent and guilty simultaneously with a great deal of subtlety (surely not an easy thing to convey on stage).
This review may sound a little contradictory at points, especially given my high rating, but that is because anytime I found fault with the show, the acting hearkened me back to why I loved it so much. The characters may not be completely three dimensional, but they are certainly representative of people we all know, and maybe even love. The plot may be close to non-existent, but you laugh and are entertained.
Short and Sweet
High marks for acting quality, but low marks for the original material (sorry David Mamet!). Kudos to Piven for graciously stepping aside and allowing Esparza to really shine comically. Kudos to Moss as well for holding her own in what could easily be a very dreary part. The cast works incredibly well as whole, and no three actors could be more inviting. If you get a chance to see it before the end of it's run on February 22, I definitely recommend seeing Speed the Plow.
"We all hope honey, it's what keeps us alive." - Karen and Charlie