REVIEW: Speed-The-Plow, Playhouse Theatre ✭✭

Lindsay Lohan and Richard Schiff in Speed-The-Plow
Photo: Simon Annand

Playhouse Theatre
22 October 2014
2 Stars

According to the musical Sweet Charity, the rhythm of life is a powerful thing. According to aficionados of David Mamet, the rhythm of his dialogue is a powerful thing. And, in truth, his plays are full of rhythm; phrases have certain particular shapes; phrases or parts of phrases are repeated and the repetition has a shape; even pauses and intakes of breath are often rhythmical. And from the rhyme comes a sort of reason, a sort of understanding about place, time, power and character. Clarity.

At least, that is the theory.

I have never found Speed-the-Plow to be a particularly compelling or thought-provoking or ground-breaking play; indeed, it’s complete lack of theatricality makes it seem more suitable for the subject of a short film rather than a stage drama. Nothing about Lindsay Posner’s unremarkable revival of Mamet’s play, now running at the Playhouse Theatre, does anything to change that view.

Indeed, it is difficult to see why the piece has been revived at all, the Old Vic having recently delivered a revival that starred Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum and which was generally well received. What is so compelling about this piece of tawdry, misogynistic drama that means it is revived with a frequency usually reserved for classics like Hay Fever or Blithe Spirit or Streetcar Named Desire?

It is not as if the subject matter is endlessly fascinating.

Two old friends, in the movie business, meet in the office of the one newly promoted to a position of power. The Unpowerful One has a pitch for a sure fire blockbuster movie in which a star is interested. The Powerful One agrees to pitch it to the Big Boss and agrees to share the millions and the credit with the Unpowerful One. Being men, they place a bet about whether or not one of them, the Powerful One, can seduce the Woman, who is his temporary secretary.

The Powerful One lures the Woman to his apartment by giving her a book to read, a book which the Big Boss wants to be the subject of a “courtesy read”. She loves the book and sees things in it which the men could never see; it’s about worthy, important themes. She convinces the Powerful One to green light a film about the book and then they seal the deal with sex. (Yes, David Mamet is not a woman or a feminist).

The next day, the Powerful One shatters the dreams of the Unpowerful One by refusing to greenlight his block-buster film. (No explanation is ever given as to why both films could not be simultaneously greenlit, but that’s another story, never mind…) The Unpowerful One punches the Powerful One in the face to make him “see reason” and then humiliates the Woman into admitting that she would not have had sex with the Powerful One but for his agreement with her about the value of filming the book. Knowing this truth (which was apparent, frankly) snaps the Powerful One back to the original plan to greenlight the blockbuster. The Woman is thrown to oblivion and the two men plan for their millions.

It’s not particularly funny, at least in this production, and, even in funnier productions, the notion that the work is an incisive satire seems perplexing. Showing entitled, white men in positions of power in the film world make deals and betray each other, smashing the life of a woman along the way to bucket loads of money, seems more realistic than satirical. Yes, the notion of the subject of the “courtesy read” is satirical, but obvious and clunky, and hardly revelatory.

So, not the plot, not the satire – why the revival?

The star.

Here, it is Lindsay Lohan and she is easily the best thing about this production. She has an easy, natural style, an interesting husky voice, and is equal to the task her role sets, in the main anyway. There was a moment this evening when she lost her place, got the giggles, covered her face with the book and then recovered. (But then he co-stars fluffed lines or business as well.) Otherwise, despite its inherent limitations, she made the character work.

Which is more than can be said for either of her co-stars, Richard Schiff and Nigel Lindsay. Both are fabulously, and utterly, miscast. Schiff, an excellent actor, looks embarrassed and horrified (rightly) to be part of the production and he barely does more than go through the motions. His look of ashen repentance in the curtain call speaks volumes.

By contrast, Lindsay (Nigel, not Lohan) seems to give his all, but his all is far short of the mark required. There is so much bluster and acute macho aggression swirling from him it’s almost unbearable to watch. It’s certainly hard to listen to him. And completely unbelievable.

The third encounter of a Lindsay kind comes in the form of the director, Posner. His work here is, frankly, lamentable. There is no power or energy to the production, no rhythm, no vision and, ultimately, little point. The shock punch and the subsequent flow of fake blood is as effective (and believable) as a band-aid on open heart surgery. Or the relationship between Schiff and Lindsay (actually, either of them). Everything about the production seems cheap; there is no ready sense of opulence which ought to be the backdrop.

There always comes a moment in the third Act of this play when one hopes that the door will fling open, or the phone will ring, and the Woman will reveal that the Big Boss has greenlit her idea for the film about the book. But, alas, this is a Mamet play and he sees women as good only for sex or humiliation.

It’s a mystery why Lindsay Lohan chose this play as her world stage debut. Perhaps she knew she would be the best thing about it? That would seem the only rational explanation. Especially as she was correct.

It is inevitable that the West End will see vehicles for film stars produced with frequency and indecent hopes for rich box office rewards. They are not always as completely misguided as this production. But that is not about the film star – it’s about the producers themselves and their disregard for both the craft of theatre and the audiences. Still, there is no denying that La Lohan’s name and face on the Billboard has brought new audiences to the theatre. That’s a great thing. Whether they ever return to the theatre after witnessing this performance is another question entirely.

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