Monday, May 3, 2010

Ye Olde Casting Couch

Vagabond Players is currently presenting David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in a taut and dynamic production. A vitriolic attack on the ethics of Hollywood, the play is Mamet's twist on that old standby for Hollywood corruption: the casting couch. A rapacious producer Bobby Gould (played by Dave Gamble), egged on by his sycophantic assistant Charlie Fox (played by Michael Leicht), places a bet on Gould's success in seducing the office's new temp Karen (played by Beverly Shannon) within twenty-four hours. The clock is also ticking because a film deal Fox is urging Gould to seal the next day could turn Fox at last into a co-producer and a wealthy man. The absurd sex-and-violence script for the deal seems to guarantee its cinematic success. But as the seduction proceeds, the hunter becomes the hunted. The determined and oddly mystical Karen manipulates Gould into endorsing her own existentialist film project and turning the conspirators Gould and Fox into violent opponents. The usual Mamet smorgasbord of obscenities, humiliation games, and physical violence rounds out the pessimistic fun.
Two actors stand out in the cast. Michael Leicht projects Fox's desperation from beginning to end. His only goal is to close the deal and rise higher in the crumbling Hollywood hierarchy. There is no other life except servile ambition for this anxious climber. Beverly Shannon gives a remarkable performance as Karen. In the first scene, the nervous temp is bewildered by her new work and apparently shocked at the office's foul language. The dewey-eyed novice seems to have walked out of a neighboring corn field. In the second scene, the object of seduction suddenly becomes the seducer. Clad in a sophisticated red Chinese blouse and tight slacks, Karen assertively recommends seduction as part of an apocalyptic world of radiation scares, failing banks, and natural catastrophes. By the third scene, dressed tightly in a black outfit and crisply barking orders to the bedazzled Gould, Karen now seems to have walked out of the Marquis de Sade's Justine. Shannon's arc of transformation of her mysterious character is the dramatic highlight of the evening. Dave Gamble provides a solid performance as the odious Gould, but the range of emotional expression seems limited. In the opening scene, his cynicism does not appears as smarmy as it could. In the closing scene, his confusion and rage seem oddly restrained.
Steve Goldklang's direction carefully builds the emotional arc of the play to its violent conclusion, even if the humor of the piece seems muted. The stark, geometric set design by Roy Steinman handsomely reduces the play to its emotional basics: plots for future deals (expressed by swaths of raw material and color) and plots for seduction (expressed by a simple leather couch).

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