Maybe sitting in the Old Vic Theatre, where some of the most thrilling English actors of the 20th-century regularly worked, is the reason I thought that watching Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum confront each other in Matthew Warchus’ must-see revival of David Mamet’s
Speed-the-Plow had to be like seeing Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson throw off red-hot sparks together on the very same stage. But no matter where this show takes place, their pairing is unequivocally the theater double act of the year.
In the revved-up interpretation of Mamet’s beautiful tease of a play about contemporary Hollywood, Goldblum plays Bobby Gould, a Tinseltown nabob just handed the power to approve any project he wants that can be brought in at less than a $10 million budget, and Spacey is Charlie Fox, a longtime associate who delivers him a high-concept script along with a big first-weekend-box-office actor committed to it. In the middle is Laura Michelle Kelly as Karen, the seemingly naive office temp, who eventually appears to have talked Gould into backing out of his promise to Fox in favor of doing something beneficial by producing a socially-conscious film instead of a standard action flick.
Viewed from one perspective, Mamet’s 90-minute steamroller could be considered the obligatory satire that every playwright who has gone to Hollywood writes as proof of having not “gone Hollywood.” He’s used acid ink to pen portraits of two men greedy for money but unsure what will guarantee their getting it — not a bad take on movieland executives who know their tenure can be shorter than a mayfly’s life. What makes Mamet’s work transcend the genre-play category is its strength as a morality play, establishing how ambiguous morality is. It’s an attitude that turns Gould (whose surname is a travesty of the adjective “good”) into a contemporary Everyman as quintessential in his way as the protagonist of a Middle-Ages cautionary tale was in his.
As Mamet posits it, everything about true morality is as opaque as the walls of glass blocks set designer Rob Howell includes in his canny designs for Gould’s office and home. That home — into which designer Paul Pyant throws the shifting lights of an apparent outdoor pool — is where Karen has been invited on a $500-dollar bet the men have that she can be seduced. She turns the tables, though. But as she does, a not untypical question about Mamet’s seeming bias against women is raised. Such a charge may be fair in a play like Oleanna, but here it’s an inaccurate accusation.
Goldblum — who looms over the proceedings like an attenuated “S” — has what can only be called sinister elegance. At times, he’s most expressive when merely silent and staring, as Gould thinks over the options presented to him by the bankroll-needy Fox and the perhaps more-calculated-than-she-initially-seems Karen. At other times, Goldblum stalks the playing area like a heron with a simmering temper.
Spacey, a master of stage entrances, is initially encountered bursting through a door so coked-up he can barely focus. He gives the impression of leaving no leeway to build his characterization further — and then does so. It’s another of the actor’s over-the-top performances, but he’s only taking his cue from the “speed” in the title. His depiction of flailing desperation is as emblematic of soul-destroying energy as his Hickey in The Iceman Cometh stood for the life force.
Kelly has perhaps the toughest assignment. The part of Karen is not underwritten; it’s scrupulously written to underscore the ambiguity theme. In order for the play to work — for there to be no obvious resolution to Gould’s ethical or unethical decisions — Karen’s motive must remain unclear. The comely Kelly — dressed primly by Howell — does the wide-eyed and straight-forward thing well, but she doesn’t allow tempting glimmers of deceit to dart through the innocent-abroad-in-Tinseltown aura she’s created.
Still, the who’s-zooming-who tension on stage is all but unbearable — at the same time as it’s absolutely riveting.