First Night: Speed-the-Plow, The Old Vic, London
Bravura virtuosity is palpable but only at the expense of truth
Wednesday 13 February 2008
In Matthew Warchus's breakneck, intriguingly balanced revival, two of Hollywood's finest actors – Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey – converge on the Old Vic stage to flesh out two of the characters in David Mamet's triangular 1988 satire on clashing values in Tinseltown.
The dramatist has acquired a lot more West Coast experience, as screenwriter and film director, since he wrote this piece, but his view of producers has remained steadfastly low. In his latest collection of essays, Bambi vs Godzilla, he asks the rhetorical question: "Who in the world has ever gone to a film because of the identity of a producer? No one."
And he characterises the breed as a bunch of cautious, cowardly script-manglers who want to find screenplays that copy last year's hit, preferably with a no-brainer twist: "Instead of a restaurant, could it be Mars and, instead of a mackerel, could it be Woodrow Wilson?"
The two producers here think in those crass terms but, in the first of the three scenes, the play revels in their corrupt energy. As the recently promoted head of production, Goldblum's lithe, leggy, finger-clicking Bobby Gould zig-zags round his new office with a snappy, fast-talking cool. Kevin Spacey, playing his long-time buddy, Charlie Fox, is a nervous wreck of wired-up, hyperactive elation. He can't believe his luck. Just when he has the chance to cash in on this connection, along comes the script of a routine prison buddy movie that's bound to be a smash because there's a bankable star on board.
It may sound a perverse complaint but Goldblum and Spacey perform the pair's joshing, neurotically driven, intimate-wary parody of a double act with such a headlong bravura that verisimilitude is sacrificed for virtuosity. Sure, the speech rhythms convey the underlying mistrust and panic, but these guys would have to be psychic in their lightning anticipation to communicate at this awesome velocity. In the resulting gabble, you lose some of the joy of listening to demotic speech that is as formal in its terse, patterned way as the elaborate dialogue of Restoration comedy.
Warchus's astute, high-powered production shows great canniness in the casting of the third character, a temporary secretary who threatens to drive a wedge between the friends when she proposes a rival project. Tapping into the not-quite-of-this-world quality she had in Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly makes you believe in the temp's rhapsodic belief in the project. Thanks to her air of enigmatic integrity, you are prepared to credit that her convictions are not compromised by a willingness to use sex as a means of persuasion, and that she is cause of a Damascene flash of idealism in Gould.
It adds fuel to the desperate violence and scorn ("Hey, I believe in the Yellow Pages, Bob, but I don't want to film it") with which Spacey's magnificent Charlie, like a livid, spurned lover, fights to win back his man. This calculatedly warped buddy play thus ends in the kind of thoughtful mixed mood that would never stand a chance in the Gould-Fox buddy movie.
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