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Speed Demon

Raul Esparza is having fun, fun, fun as a ruthless Hollywood producer in the Broadway revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. logo
Raul Esparza and Jeremy Piven in Speed-the-Plow
(© Brigitte Lacombe)
Everyone has a different definition of fun. Raul Esparza's apparently involves screaming at the top of his lungs, beating up his co-star, and insulting a beautiful woman. To be honest, that's all on stage -- and all in the course of playing Hollywood producer Charlie Fox in Neil Pepe's revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow at the Barrymore Theatre, where the co-star and woman in question are, respectively, Emmy Award winner Jeremy Piven and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss.

"This is the most fun I've had on stage in a long time," says the three-time Tony Award nominee. "I think it's partly because my characters in my last two Broadway shows, Company and The Homecoming, were about restraint, and Charlie is definitely not. I'm still learning where I can control my energy; this is much more physical than Company. In fact, I think the last time I had this sort of freedom on stage was when I did Taboo. But that show was more like doing improvisation, and this one is so structured verbally."

The play's structure, says Esparza, has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. "David is such a smart writer that there is only one way to say his lines; if you even drop an article, the line suddenly lacks punch," he says. "And Jeremy and I essentially speak in fragments -- I have the verb and he has the noun -- and that can be hard to memorize. But it's great to do a play where the words tell you everything."

First seen on Broadway in 1988 -- with Ron Silver giving a Tony Award-winning performance as Charlie -- Speed-the-Plow takes place over 24 hours in Hollywood. During that short time, Charlie sees his chance at his big break after 11 years in the business -- co-producing a big star's action movie -- threaten to evaporate when longtime friend and recently promoted executive Bobby Gould (Piven) goes back on his word to make the flick after spending the night talking to not-so-innocent temporary secretary Karen (Moss), who wants to produce a film based on a hoity-toity book about radioactivity and the end of the world.

"David said to us that when he wrote it, Charlie was meant to be the bad guy, because he came down so heavily on the idea of commercialism; but now he doesn't see that as the point of the play," says Esparza. "What Bobby and Charlie are really arguing about is loyalty and friendship. Charlie is pretty ruthless, but he's also determined to be 100 percent honest, which isn't the kind of person you meet in L.A. In my experience, everyone there wants to be your friend, so they'll never say anything nasty -- especially since they may need you later on. That's why I think Charlie is probably from Chicago or New York and just ended up in L.A."

Indeed, Esparza has created a whole backstory for the character. "I know exactly who Charlie is. He probably spends too much money he doesn't quite have. He drives a used Porsche. He tries to go to clubs where he can't get in. And he probably drinks a lot and does drugs just to keep up, because he's really in love with the idea of success and wealth," he says. "But I don't think he's evil or tormented or even troubled. I think he's happy and just introspective enough as he needs to be. And I think, in part because of that, it's been a lot easier for me to leave Charlie at the Barrymore. This is not a play that haunts me the way my last two shows did or being the Emcee in Cabaret -- which was the most truly depressing thing I've ever done."

Furthermore, he says it's been a totally positive experience working with Piven and Moss. "Jeremy works his ass off, and as an actor, all you can ask for is that your stage partner is willing to go to bat for you, and he does. We don't work in the same way, but we really work well together and I really like and respect him," he says. "I don't have a lot of interaction on stage with Elisabeth, but she's definitely the real thing. She seems born to be on the stage."

But what has pleased Esparza most about doing the show is the audience's reaction. "I am surprised how much they are enjoying it. It can get pretty raucous, with lots of screaming and yelling," he says. "I think we were all nervous about how it would be received -- and especially what David would think about the production. But he's told us it's good, and since he's not the kind of man who would mince words, we'll take that. I am so lucky to have a job, and especially lucky to have one that I love. And while I like the fact that it's a limited run, I also think it would be really fun to make a movie out of this one."

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