Chris Raplph, John Muggleton (seated) and Kyla Gray. Photo: Allan Dean. David Mamet’s play, first produced in 1988 with Madonna playing the single feminine role, has lost none of its bite, its irreverence - to put it mildly - its male capitalist energy, and the power of its dialogue that shoots back and forth as though the actors were riddling each other with machine gun spray. Director Teri Loretto-Valentik has captured the high powered rhythm of Mamet’s intense exchanges.
From the very first moment that Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox find themselves in that ultra-sophisticated Hollywood office, their verbal confrontation becomes the centre of attention. Sentences are clipped off before they end, or reduced to a word that replaces a whole paragraph. There’s no room for pauses or silence. Words fill the vacant spaces showing us how Mamet’s speech is essentially a panic stricken strategy for maintaining human contact without really communicating any ideas.
Bob Gould, a recently promoted film executive, played by John Muggleton, is convinced by his long time loyal pal, Chuck Fox (Chris Ralph) to try to get the producer of his film company to produce a violent mindless script called Prison, only because a famous actor wants to work with Chuck. The two friends know that this deal will make them rich, because Prison is the kind of film that puts “rear ends on seats” and in this business where a film is a commodity, it’s the only thing that matters.
When the temporary secretary, Karen (Kyla Gray), brings in the coffee, the misogynous and cynical Chuck bets Bob he couldn’t get her to sleep with him, only because she really “likes” him. Suddenly the plot twists as Bob accepts the bet, using a “sissy” novel he is supposed to read for a possible film, as a way of attracting Karen into his apartment that night. From that moment on, Bob is torn between his long-time friend and this “new” presence in his life that seems to have transformed him deeply.
Bob’s encounter with Karen begins as a session of raw seduction as Karen explains her passionate reaction to the book about Radioactivity and the Depravity of Humanity that was never supposed to be taken seriously as a film. Their discussion fills the cynical film executive’s head with ideas of purity, and goodness, and even the strange idea of making good movies for artistic reasons. For Chuck, of course, film making is only a means to an end, opening doors to wealth and power and all those important things which he deserves in life. The confrontation takes place as the struggling triangle is set up in a series of parallel confrontations, as Karen appears to become Chuck’s alter ego. Mamet’s writing is masterful as it propels the play along at a furious pace.
Nothing is ever totally clear in Mamet’s theatre. Oleana showed us, for example that the author’s relationship with this girl who accuses her professor of harassment, remains ambiguous right to the end. In Speed -the- PLow, Mamet eviscerates all the goodwill from these creatures caught up in greed and self-gratification, creating a world devoid of any possibility of generosity and humanity. When Karen asks “why” they do what they do, the race grinds to a halt for a few seconds. Neither of the men can find a clear answer, even though Bob actually gets a glimpse of something that might change that. But all hopes are soon dashed to pieces in the final and very powerful 20 minutes of the play.
These shifts in tone, these constant confrontations carried off in speech patterns that almost have us panting for relief, put great demands on the actors. Kyla Gray as Karen didn’t quite capture the mixture of innocence and aggressive sexuality that barely hides the ambitious streak behind her whole performance. She was simply too nice, and although she makes us believe how much she is moved by the novel about radiation and the end of the world that was only used as bait, she never really captures the rest of her complex character that works like a spider’s web entrapping all those around her.
On the other hand, the duo of John Muggleton as Bob Gould, and Chris Ralph as Chuck Fox, unfolded like a most perfectly orchestrated piece of music, with moments of greatness, especially in the first act when Chuck announces his thrilling news about the film star who wants to work with them. They both see gold glittering before their eyes in a manic performance was actually thrilling to watch.
Director Loretto shows very clearly how this relationship develops, how Chuck, at first the obsequious loyal friend and good pal who understands everything, changes into a vulgar, misogynous creature invading Bob’s private life, squashing every ounce of decency and genuine artistic instinct that dares to remain in the executive’s head. Chuck eventually evolves into a vulgar and evil presence, the antithesis of the apparently pure and generous Karen, both of whom are tugging away at Bob’s conscience as though the devil and the angel were tearing him apart. The struggle reaches near allegorical heights as it prepares us for the terrible truth which erupts at the end.
Chuck plays out his disbelief in the third act in a strong scene where he appears not to have heard what Bob has just announced about his choice of plays. Chris Ralph as Chuck might have expressed more real anger fuelled by fear since his whole life seems to be collapsing around him. On the other hand, John Muggleton’s performance as Bob Gould was absolutely impeccable all the way through. One has the impression that the character is so deeply part of the actor’s temperament that every single gesture, no matter how insignificant, reveals some deeper truth about this film mogul who goes through a powerful transformation, and then must finally regain his composure for reasons you will have to discover. Muggleton, whom we usually associate with comedy, shows us the high level of his professionalism as an actor.
Ivo Valentik’s set design is one of the most beautiful and transformative structures I have seen on a small independent stage in this city for a long time. Fused with baroque-like sense of split perspectives as it thrusts out through the proscenium arch, its site lines are extended back, creating a feeling of enormous depth beyond the back of the stage. The white scaffolding that outlines the contemporary structure of this Hollywood office building, along with the transparent chairs and white tilted tables, all work in a strangely expressionistic manner. The distorted décor, supported by ultra-modern glass and steel frames where huge window spaces open up on all sides, as well as Valentik’s sound design, evoke the fast paced glamour and instant gratification that propels all these characters.
Speed -The – Plow is a beautiful production of a play that Director Loretto has kept in high gear and seething with energy. With such momentum, one wouldn’t even miss the 20 minute intermission if they decided to remove it…
Speed-The-Plow plays from October 5 to October 22 at The Gladstone Theatre. 910 Gladstone Ave. Box Office: 613-233-4523 or visit www.thegladstone.ca.