David Mamet loves offices. After an evening spent with one of his plays, there's no mystery why: Mamet's language of wheeling and dealing plays like second nature poetry in that environment, in which secretaries who pour coffee are as commonplace as shirts and ties. The playwright's Speed-the-Plow falls easily into his oeuvre, and into the most archetypal of all offices: Hollywood producer Bobby Gould's black leather lair. Gould is a success, he's anxious to tell anyone who'll listen, because he makes good decisions -- decisions that lead to big money. Making money is the central purpose of almost all of Mamet's characters, and in the case of Speed-the-Plow, it's a too-perfect conceit for a story about the dwindling morality and inartistic celluloid that comes out of Los Angeles. Of course, it's possible that Mamet's less-than-blockbuster success in the film industry imbued the 1988 Plow with cliches about the crass world of movie executives, but in Actors Theatre's tight production of the play, even cliched movie deals are made relevant.
Set in the company's small in-the-round space, Gould's office sits like a gemstone. It is into this intimate space that Gould's underling, Charlie Fox, flings himself. Holding a hot option on a script from a leading screenwriter, Fox is anxious to cut a deal for a buddy/prison film, the kind of schlock that spawns sequels and stars, presumably, Bruce Willis. As Gould, James Belcher is sly and wonderfully funny, winking at Fox over his chilled Perrier while talking on the phone to orchestrate a meeting for the deal. The tension Mamet sets up is a common one -- Gould and Fox are polar opposites, as not so delicately pointed out by their names (one suggesting old money, the other, cunning). Significantly, Gould wears white and Fox dark black and purple. The most important difference between the two is that Gould is a man at the pinnacle of success in a business that eats ambitious executives alive, while Fox is one such chewed-up soul. This deal, if it happens, is what could put him on top.
George Brock, in the hailstorm of expletives and broken sentences that make up Mamet's characteristic style, plays Fox's lust for the big time as an utterly self-involved venture. He paces, he jumps up and down, he throws back straight vodka and he chain-smokes, exhaling beautifully directed streams of smoke into the dark theater. We are reminded, through the actors' box stepping and the play's major question -- is the movie going to be made? -- that offices are the locale of battles and of buying and selling. Fox is there to sell, and he's selling hard.
The problem is, Gould has another option to consider, a book his higher-up has asked him to give a "courtesy read." It's a philosophical tome, a heavy-hitting treatise on the effects of radiation, and Gould is clearly not interested in making it a movie. What he's interested in is finding the deal that makes him look good, and Belcher capitalizes on that drive, measuring out good cheer and compliments when Fox becomes skittish and performing necessary doses of back-patting to ensure Fox isn't going to cross the street with his deal.
The tension between the men is cleanly choreographed with a raw kind of energy. But the chemistry is upset when Gould's temporary secretary, Karen (Nicole Feenstra), enters the office. As wagering men do, the two place a bet on whether or not she can be persuaded to sleep with Gould. In this otherwise honed production, it's curious that director Brandon Smith sends Feenstra out in a skirt that appears uncomfortably small (and not terribly attractive) and shoes she doesn't quite have the finesse to walk in. But he does. Thus, Karen's cautious entrance into Gould's office is made awkwardly. The lineage of actresses who have played this Delphic muse/seductress/career-climbing bitch of a character has ranged from Madonna to Justine Bateman; that it's a difficult part to cast isn't surprising, given Mamet has little talent (or inclination) for creating female characters who have a purpose beyond taking off their clothes and manipulating power plays.
The sexual tension, another given in Mamet's world, is handled well in Smith's production, as Feenstra weaves her own career and mating dance around an increasingly befuddled Gould. Mating adds fuel to the play's engine, and the production doesn't disappoint, hurtling toward a crash that no one but Fox completely understands.
It's the tiny details that make this show work: Belcher's masterful rhythm and timing, as well as his ability to render a heartless (and, with the exception of dealmaking, brainless) producer a likable character. It's possible to forget, especially in Plow's second act, that there's no basis for Karen's transformation into a hard-nosed dealmaker, and that there's no precedent for Fox's sudden clairvoyance when faced with destruction.
Speed-the-Plow is far from Mamet's best work, boldly displaying all the weaknesses the writer is noted for: flat female characters and a morbid fascination with the politics of the deal. But Belcher, and to a lesser degree his co-stars, make Actors Theatre's production meatier, and more worthwhile, than the play itself.
Unlikely female characters were a theme in Houston theater last week, especially with Theatre Under the Stars' season opener, My Fair Lady. The lyricist/composer team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe adapted the musical from G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion in 1956, a half-decade after the playwright's death, thereby circumventing Shaw's distaste for dampening the social bite of his play by adding showy production numbers. Lerner and Loewe succeeded in writing a memorable score, but My Fair Lady has only a breath of the class war relevance found in Pygmalion, and thus a good deal less substance.
TUTS is selling this production as an "updated version" of the musical, but the updates are hard, if not impossible, to find. While it's not reasonable to expect the 1950s to have produced a female protagonist with even a mildly feminist consciousness, this production, following Shaw's premise of the crusty speech professor Henry Higgins wagering he can transform a Covent Garden flower girl into a proper lady, celebrates the script's misogyny. Despite the lovely songs and an inspiringly funny performance from Clive Revill as Alfred P. Doolittle, our girl Eliza's father, the enduring message of the production is that Eliza wins the attention of rich eligible men by dressing well and conversing pleasantly.
Where this production of My Fair Lady fails most, though, is in convincing the audience that the fresh Lee Merrill as Eliza could possibly fall for the doddering Noel Harrison as Professor Higgins. There's a definite call for chemistry to overcome such nasty Higgins lines as "She's so deliciously low" and "She's a soiled cabbage leaf." Even if the audience accepts Harrison's unrelenting crustiness (a genuine, if not particularly endearing, reading of the character), the largest emotional gift his character offers Eliza is the measly "I've Become Accustomed to Her Face." Now what kind of girl could pass that compliment up?
Actually, the girl to pass that kind of compliment up is indeed Merrill, who plays an unwavering, if frustrated, Eliza. There's never a connection on her side of the love equation either, and the revelatory "I Could Have Danced All Night" plays more like an epiphany for learning proper enunciation than it does a song about falling in love. In a balanced production it could do both; in director Sidney Berger's production, it only succeeds marginally as the first.
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Luckily, Revill lightens things up with his rakish performance as Eliza's father. Big and lively, Revill is the sort of character actor who keeps a production going, and he seems to delight even his fellow actors with his disdain for middle class morality. One of the high points in the show is Revill's rich baritone in the lamentably funny "Get Me to the Church on Time."
There are a few ways a clever director could reinvent My Fair Lady, but none of them happen with TUTS' version. Unfortunately, what should soar in the purest of revivals only putts along here, and there's never any hope that anything deeper than pretty pictures and fine singing will surface in this professionally dull production.
Speed-the-Plow plays through November 3 at Actors Theatre, 2506 South Boulevard, 529-6606.
My Fair Lady plays through October 27 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 622-