Moil and madness
New Ambassadors, London WC2 ***
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, Saturday March 18, 2000
Speed the "plow" is an ancient English expression, a blessing upon those setting out to do an honest day's toil and harvesting the wheat necessary to sustain life. In David Mamet's 1988 satire, Bob Gould, newly promoted head of production at a big Hollywood studio, cheerfully admits that in 11 years in the film business he has never done a day's work. He and his wannabe producer friend, Charlie, know that it is the deal that counts. And if that's the case, then it doesn't matter if you turn out garbage.
Then Karen, the temporary secretary assigned to Bob, comes up with a novel suggestion. Why don't they make a film that isn't complete drivel? Bob and Charlie are astonished. Business, they argue, just doesn't work like that. You give people what they want and what you gave them last year, and you don't try to give them what they need. But when a bet is laid between the two men that Bob can bed Karen, and as a ploy he gets her to report on a potential project, a change of heart might be in the air.
Mamet's great early plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo cast a jaundiced eye over the American dream and charted its disintegration with the sourest of wisecracks. So who better to dissect the institution that peddles dreams to us all? But Mamet is the great illusionist himself, as much in love with the scam as Bob and Charlie, and the sassiness of the play disguises the fact that this is another empty Mamet fable in which the dice are all loaded. When it comes down to it, Mamet is never on the side of the angels; he's with the cynics.
For all their swagger, Bob and Charlie are as much innocents as Karen, and Mamet depicts all three as if they have been gripped by a kind of insanity. It is a pity that Peter Gill's production doesn't quite capture the intense, wired madness of the world they inhabit.
I'd rather see a play by Patrick Marber than one in which he stars, but as the desperate Charlie he has the rumpled, careworn look of a deranged teddy bear. Mark Strong as Bob offers all the confusion you'd expect of a man who has undergone two Pauline conversions in a day, and Kimberly Williams excels as Karen, brilliantly evoking the daisy-like persona of a woman who is like one of those religious pedlars who tries to sell you your own soul.
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