Friday, October 23, 2009

Plowing Mamet - and his man-traps

He said/she read; Aimee Doherty and Robert Pemberton in Speed-the-Plow.

The question about David Mamet has always been, "Is he a misogynist - or does he just hate women?" That rap as a hater could probably be traced as far back as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but it was cemented by Speed-the-Plow, and then set it stone by Oleanna, two plays which, perhaps due to the office sex on the red-hot Mad Men, are once again hot, too; indeed, the New Rep has followed in Broadway's footsteps by just opening a new production of Speed-the-Plow, which runs through November 7.

But for what it's worth, Mamet strikes me as not so much a misogynist as a gynophobe. What's the difference, you ask? Well, a misogynist actively hates women; a gynophobe "merely" fears them. That's splitting hairs on a Coke can, you say, and you may be right - most gynophobes end up as misogynists. Only it's interesting to note that Mamet isn't really disgusted by women, or outraged by them, and he doesn't really belittle or mock them.

No, he's just afraid of them - women, or at least heterosexual women (gay women are in the boy-club), are often his villains of choice, at least on stage. And why? Because they have a secret weapon: sex, which destabilizes and undermines the savage power games of men. In short, to Mamet, men may be animals, and it's a jungle out there, but women are the snakes in that jungle's tall grass - because sex is sneaky and unfair (it's like Kryptonite).

Speed-the-Plow is probably a pivotal text in this artist's "development" (even though it's hardly one of Mamet's best), in that after the masculine bloodsport of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, it marked the return of women to the center of the playwright's oeuvre, indeed to the middle of the combat format he'd perfected in Glengarry. And weirdly, the playwright suddenly revealed an affection for the brutal buddy system he'd seemed to eviscerate before. The guy-land of Hollywood in Speed-the-Plow is unsparingly, but sympathetically, rendered; these "players" may be assholes, but we understand them. They have, you know, like a code we remember from junior high.

To Mamet, however, sex is always below the belt (literally), and has no such code - and maybe it doesn't. But somehow that idea seems to be pounded down onto his female villains without any further attempt at insight. Take "Karen," for instance, the temp who temporarily up-ends the power structure of Speed-the-Plow; she's not so much a character as a device, and an internally contradictory one at that. (Warning: spoilers ahead for those who've never encountered the plot of this high-profile star vehicle.)

Karen is first presented as clumsy and sweet - an innocent piece of sexual bait floating in the Hollywood shark tank; immediately, and predictably, Mamet's "Charlie" bets his buddy "Bobby" that he can't bed her by midnight. And so the game is, like, on. But the trick Bobby uses to lure Karen to his crib - he asks her for a 'courtesy read' of a pretentious new novel - backfires when she begins to play not only on his horniness but his inner doubts about the adolescent fodder he churns out with Charlie (who has a Tom-Cruise-like star on call waiting). One candlelit conversation and a quick roll in the hay later, and Karen has replaced Charlie in Bobby's affections, Bobby's about to greenlight a deal with that earnest courtesy-read's author, and the deal with Tom Cruise may be down the drain.

Luckily, an improbable contradiction in the plot comes to Charlie's rescue! Which ties into whatever larger interest the play may have, outside the accuracy of Mamet's ear for male banter and Hollywood babble. Said intrigue revolves around the true nature of Karen: is she a naïf who's wandered into incredible good fortune, or a calculating player herself? Exploring either option, however, would require a play of substantially larger proportions than the 80-minute Speed-the-Plow (a title once memorably parodied by David Ives as Speed-the-Play). Hence, Karen does something that wraps the script up neatly, but makes any explanation for her behavior impossible: in a key moment, she admits to Bobby that she slept with him merely to secure the movie deal.

Hmmm. The problem with this twist is that it makes Karen a bit like Bertrand Russell's barber who only shaves men who don't shave themselves. If we "buy" the naïve honesty of her third-act confession, then her second-act subterfuge makes no sense. But if we take her seduction of Bobby for what she says it was, then her confession seems bizarre; why would (and how could) she pull off Act II so flawlessly, then suddenly come clean in Act III?

It is a puzzlement. But the question doesn't matter to Mamet, because to him Karen's just a prop - a Gumby with boobs to be twisted as he chooses; indeed, after she loses her dreams, big time, he hardly bothers to even give her any lines, but instead has his buddies merely crow over her downfall. Curtain! We're done here.

Right. See, here's where that "misogynist" tag got stuck on Mamet's back. Because why, precisely, should we be cheering on Bobby and Charlie? Another puzzlement; the only answer available seems to be "because they're guys." And that answer has begun to pop up repeatedly in the Mamet canon; he has avoided heterosexual female characters more and more in his output, replacing them with lesbians (Boston Marriage, November) or just dispensing with them entirely, in such all-male comedies as the oddly (or aptly?) named Romance, and the current gay sex farce Keep Your Pantheon. It also seems worth pointing out that the affectionate parody of buggery in Romance and Pantheon throws Mamet's women in an even more curious light - why is sex suddenly so harmless when it's just between guys?

But while all this has made Mamet a lesser artist, in a way it has made him a greater pop-cultural avatar. Speed-the-Plow has become the template for many imitations on both stage and screen, and of course Mamet's homosocial/heterosexual stance is now the default mode of Judd-Apatow-style Hollywood comedy - ironically enough, given Mamet's supposed contempt for Tinseltown. But when you consider that Mamet cast Madonna in the premiere of Speed-the-Plow, and Jeremy Piven in its revival, his horror of Hollywood whoredom becomes harder to credit. (And at any rate, his parody of the Cormac-McCarthy-like doomsday novel that Karen falls in love with renders his satire of La-La Land largely toothless.)

So given the surface-flash but internal-weakness of Speed-the-Plow, it's no surprise that the New Rep production sometimes glitters, but doesn't really satisfy. Director Robert Walsh seems to have come down on the side of Karen's innocence in his interpretation, which, like any answer to the "Karen paradox," must be wrong, but probably more wrong than making her a cunning little vixen. "Conniving Karen" leaves you with a contradiction near the end of the third act, when she hardly has any lines anyway; but "Clueless Karen" leaves you with a long second act that makes no sense.

And sure enough, Act II sags in this version, and actress Aimee Doherty, though superficially appealing as ever, can't make much of it. And without much to play against, the capable Robert Pemberton (hasn't he played this role before?) is left shadow-boxing on Eric Levenson's sleek set. He puts a spitting shine on his Mamet-speak, however, whenever he's chumming with Charlie, here given ferocious life by Gabriel Kuttner, an undersung local actor who may with this role break out to a larger public. Kuttner has an eccentric physical presence, but he always somehow makes his characters work, and he brings a compelling force to both Charlie's desperation and outrage that brings this Plow to an electrifying finish. Both he and Pemberton could bring stronger undercurrents of self-contempt (Bobby) and resentment (Charlie) to their co-dependence in the first act, but together they bring the curtain down with a vengeance on Mamet's hapless man-trap.

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