These are difficult times for Broadway producers, especially producers of those unpopular experiments known at the discount ticket booths as “nonmusical plays.” The great American playwright David Mamet was represented on Broadway this fall by revivals of two of his best-known works: American Buffalo, an early success that dates to 1975, and Speed-the-Plow, which first opened on Broadway in 1988. Of the two, only the latter remains to greet the new year.
It is unfortunate that the tepid revival of American Buffalo, which closed just after opening in November to unenthusiastic reviews, was not a more worthy competitor for the brisk new staging of Speed-the-Plow. That show opened strong in October and is surviving some recent backstage drama (Entourage star Jeremy Piven abruptly left the show mid-contract, suffering from “high levels of mercury”). Though written a decade apart, the two plays make excellent companion texts, with each reflecting and revealing important aspects of the other. Both plays concern the power struggles of three competing characters in the world of business, with its idiomatic vernacular and flexible moral codes. And both plays are fractured allegories, dark comedies that stand morality on its head and challenge the audience to work out the lesson.
The humor in American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow derives mainly from the characters’ attempts to defend their righteousness in increasingly amoral contexts. Donny, the junk-shop proprietor of American Buffalo, has hired Bobby, a young drug addict, to help him burglarize the home of a customer who recently paid Donny $90 for a buffalo-head nickel. Though Donny was previously unaware that the coin had any value, he has now convinced himself that it must have been worth “five times” what the man paid. Therefore, he explains to his friend Teach, the man has effectively stolen the coin, and Donny is perfectly justified in stealing it back.
Teach is not troubled by the perverse nature of this appeal to justice. He is a believer in every man’s right “to secure his honest chance to make a profit.” But as the characters’ evasions pile up, what constitutes an “honest chance” is increasingly difficult to determine. Teach sees a chance to profit from the heist, so he convinces Donny to let him take Bobby’s place. In allowing Teach to manipulate him, Donny betrays Bobby’s trust. All three men pay lip service to “friendship,” but only Bobby seems capable of genuine loyalty or affection—and yet, it is a lie told by Bobby, in an attempt to remain in Donny’s good graces, that sets the entire half-baked plot in motion to begin with. The plan ultimately collapses under the weight of the conspirators’ mounting deceptions and mutual suspicions. The disorienting emptiness it leaves behind rattles even Teach (whose rage is rendered in Mamet’s idiosyncratic style): “There Is No Right And Wrong. The World Is Lies.”
Donny is undone by his tragic inability to distinguish treasure from trash. But even amid the clutter of Don’s Resale Shop, the potential for redemption exists. Donny has belatedly obtained a guide to collectable coins that could inform his deficient sense of values. He resists looking up the true worth of the buffalo-head, however, fearing that consulting “the book” will expose his corrupt motives. “The book is like you use it like an indicator,” he explains to Bobby. “You got an idea you can deviate from.” Teach concurs: “What am I going to do, leaf through the book for hours on end? The important thing is to have the idea...” Unwilling to defer to the authority of the book, the men become so tangled in their deviations from it that, by the play’s conclusion, the very idea of goodness seems impossibly remote.
American Buffalo’s cast, directed by Robert Falls, proved unequal to the challenges of Mamet’s script—like the characters, the actors might have profited from more deference to the text. Cedric the Entertainer (known primarily as a standup comic) and John Leguizamo (who has similar roots) brought plenty of stage presence to their respective roles as Donny and Teach, and former child star Haley Joel Osment made a touchingly vulnerable Bobby. But Mamet’s highly stylized interpretation of natural speech has an internal rhythm that none of the actors could capture. The characters’ exchanges were stilted, stripped of the mesmerizing pulse that drives them on the page; and the play, which is nearly all talk, remained limp until Teach’s violent explosion near the end.
The stars of Speed-the-Plow have the opposite problem: director Neil Pepe keeps their exchanges moving at such a rapid-fire pace that the onstage chatter seldom bears any resemblance to actual conversation. The tempo is appropriate, since Speed-the-Plow is, on a superficial level, a gleeful satire of the motion-picture industry, and its characters’ dealmaking banter is fueled by coffee and cocaine. But the snappy dialogue is more than just a series of vulgar one-liners. Encoded in the ironic allusions and insults are authentic questions about integrity and faith.
Bobby Gould (played with sharp sensitivity by Piven in the performance I saw) has just been promoted to head of production at a major studio, and his friend Charlie Fox (a showy Raúl Esparza) is hoping Gould will help him produce a big-budget “buddy movie.” Gould, like American Buffalo’s Donny, knows he’s in the business of selling junk, but he prides himself on his unerring ability to spot a money-maker. He promises Fox the buddy movie will bring them both untold riches and power: “We’re going to have to hire someone just to figure out the things we want to buy.” Enter Karen, a Hollywood novice (played with quiet authority by Elisabeth Moss), who innocently questions the project’s artistic value. Gould explains that quality is not his responsibility. “Is there such a thing as a good film which loses money?” he asks, answering his own question: “In general, of course. But, really, not.”
In the course of their negotiations, Gould and Fox play fast and loose with the language of religion: “Lord, I believe, aid thou my unbelief,” Fox quips, convincing himself the buddy movie is a done deal. Gould tells Karen, “I prayed to be pure.... They gave me the job, I’m here one day and look at me: a big fat whore.” But while Fox is unperturbed by his own venality, Gould is unknowingly on the verge of a moral crisis. “When the gods would make us mad, they answer our prayers,” he blusters cheerfully as the lights come up on him in his new office. Those words come back to haunt him through Karen, who offers a vision of integrity just when Gould has all but convinced himself of its irrelevance.
This play, too, has a “book”—a heady, dippy novel about the spiritual purposes of radiation. Gould has already ruled out a film adaptation due to the “artsy” novel’s limited appeal (as Fox puts it, “I wouldn’t believe this shit if it was true”). But he asks Karen to read it and give him a report, hoping to lure her to his house. Karen arrives that night full of evangelical zeal and begs Gould to produce the movie, as a service to mankind, and to her. The buddy movie is “degrading,” she says, whereas the book offers hope of redemption: “It says in spite of our transgressions—that we could do something. Which would bring us alive.”
Gould is seduced by the notion that making this film could help him reclaim his purity. In the light of day, however, the “right” choice is hardly clear—rejecting the buddy movie means reneging on the deal with Fox, while green-lighting the novel means risking his job. Fox sneers at the book’s premise of “grace,” reminding Gould, “It’s not for you.... You have a different thing.” And Karen turns out to be less innocent than she seems—a crisis for Gould, whose faith depended on her witness. Gould finds himself choosing between the inspiration—or is it cheap grace?—offered by “the book” and the admittedly degrading but far more pragmatic pursuit of business as usual.
Maybe the book is a sham—when the characters read aloud from it, derisively or reverently, the excerpts tend to sound like empty nonsense. But in the midst of all the spiritual babble, one line resonates: “Is it true that we are always in the same state of growth, the same state of decay as the world in which we live?” In a world of ambiguous morality, is transcendence possible—and is transcendence the appropriate goal? Is it courage or foolish escapism that inspires Gould to seek a higher path? In performance, Speed-the-Plow is an entertaining whirl that leaves little time for reflection. But the profoundly disquieting questions it raises linger, unresolved, after the play is over.
Pictured: John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer, and Haley Joel Osment in American Buffalo. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.