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Theater Review: Of Movie Dreams and Greed; Shaker Bridge Delivers Mamet, With Vigor

If Billy Wilder had made a film about Hollywood in the 1980s that was dirtier and coarser than his 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, it might look a little like David Mamet’s entertaining Hollywood satire Speed-the-Plow, which is currently running in an energetic production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield. Like Wilder, Mamet is biting the hand that fed him. Shaking your fist at the commercial gods that rule Hollywood is a ritual practically as old as the movie business itself. Writers can always get a laugh by mocking Hollywood’s crass preoccupation with money, beauty and status. And Mamet scores bull’s-eyes in his antic take-down of the idiots that can greenlight, or shut down, a film.

These are people who, in his scathing portrayal, are uncomfortable talking about ideas and art; they’d rather talk about the umpteenth sequel to Batman or the weekend’s gross for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 16. Anything that smacks of intellect is dismissed as “sissy” or useless.

In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet gives us two hacks, Bob and Charlie, who are fellow grunts in the Hollywood factory farm. Bob has been promoted to a producer at a studio; Charlie is his old buddy who comes calling with a pitch. Charlie has persuaded a big star to come in with him on a prison “buddy” picture, and he wants Bob to take the deal to a bigger shark who can make the deal happen quickly. The two men, who are old friends, celebrate what looks like a sure thing.

But a large complication ensues when an attractive temporary secretary, Karen, becomes the focal point of contention and contest between the two men. Bobby, who’s attracted to her, asks her to read a book that’s been submitted for possible adaptation into a script.

A talky, pretentious book about nuclear war and death, it’s as far from a Hollywood franchise as you can get, and both Bobby and Charlie have been mocking it roundly. But Karen is earnest and she sees something in the book about life and hope that the two men have missed. She seems sincere, but this is Hollywood, where everybody has an angle.

I think what Mamet misses, though, is what Wilder understood: the power of dreams and illusion as an animating force for good in people’s lives. Mamet gets the ugliness and stupidity, but he misses how dreams can sustain us through even the bleakest of periods. Do dreams occasionally drift over into delusion? Sure, but so what?

He tries to address this in the person of Karen, who challenges Bobby to look beyond the obvious prison buddy picture to material that is difficult and perhaps mawkish. But Karen’s tortured attempts to explain to Bobby just why this book is so compelling make her seem as much of a simpleton as the two men. Mamet has a tough, knife-edged, disciplined mind and he can spot hypocrisy and idiocy 10 miles away, but you always feel his contempt for what H.L. Mencken called “boobus Americanus.”

What makes him great theater though, even when the drama is relatively low stakes, as it is here, is the force and vitality of his language. OK, old news. Everyone talks about Mamet’s signature staccato, percussive language. But when you have a good director, as you do with Shaker Bridge Theater’s Bill Coons, he can make you hear the speech in a new way. What you don’t want to have happen, as in bad productions of Mamet, is for the language to hit a predictable, ba-boom, ba-boom rhythm. You don’t want it to sound like Christopher Walken doing a Mamet caricature.

Here the actors sound fresh and real, particularly Jonathan Anderson as the antic Charlie, who brings Bobby the movie deal, and Sheila Tapia, who has internalized Mamet’s language in a way that sounds authentic and natural, which is actually a hard trick to pull off. She is the steady intelligence in the room.

Jeremiah Wiggins, as Bobby, doesn’t have quite the force that the other two actors do. For a Hollywood producer reveling in his own newly acquired power, he doesn’t exude enough heat. This is a guy who should behave as if he’s on top of the world, arrogant and smug. This Bobby seems like just another functionary, which, of course, he is; but he doesn’t know that yet.

And although I don’t normally express reservations about costume, this Bobby doesn’t dress like a studio executive with big professional ambition; in the first act in particular, he looks more like a small-town accountant. Maybe that’s deliberate, as if Bobby’s clothing and trappings haven’t yet caught up with his position, but it doesn’t work for the play.

As Charlie, Anderson has some of the best moments in the show when he realizes that Bobby is not going to go along with him on what he thought was the deal that would finally make him a player. He captures Charlie’s impotence and rage, lashing out in a shocking moment. Coons has done a fine job of deconstructing a play and putting it back together so that it still feels germane nearly 30 years after it was first produced.

“Speed-the-Plow” runs through Feb. 3 at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield. For tickets and information go to www.shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 603-448-3750.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.