NEW YORK -- The 1987-88 theater season ended Tuesday with a whimper of a play, 'Speed the Plow,' instead of the bang that should have heralded Madonna's Broadway debut.
David Mamet's three-character comedy came in under the May 4 cut-off for Tony Award nominations, the official end of the season. The off-campus production of the Lincoln Center Theater opened at the Royale Theater May 3 and obviously was calculated to snare an honor or two, a possibility that seems remote.
Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Madonna is a rock star of undisputed magnitude and a rising film actress. Her fellow actors are Joe Mantegna, a Tony Award winner, and Ron Silver, an established Broadway and Hollywood actor.
Add 'Speed-the-Plow' to the long list of novels and plays that have attacked Hollywood for its amoral callousness and lack of interest in anything resembling art or serious subject matter. Filmdom is only interested in the box office. Film executives are crazy as well as crude and corrupt. So what else is new?
Madonna, disguised as a brunette, plays the key role of Karen, a temporary secretary assigned to the office of Bobby Gould (Mantegna), a veteran hustler who has just been named head of production by his studio. He has every intention of producing a script brought to him by a toady friend of long standing, Charlie Fox (Silver), who has gotten a famous motion picture actor to agree to play in it.
Enter Karen, a determined, humorless sort of young lady, almost prim in her demeanor. She is assigned by Bobby to 'courtesy read' an intellectually confused novel about the radiation-induced end of civilization submitted as possible movie material and becomes hooked on its philosophical viewpoint. Karen persuades Bobby to dump Charlie's script in favor of the novel in the course of one night of love at Bobby's apartment.
In the end, the frightened Charlie is able to make Bobby see the light -- that Karen is just another Hollywood hopeful making a grab for power -- and forces Karen to admit to Bobby that she would not have slept with him had he turned down the novel as script material. As a result, Bobby faces a moral abyss for the first time in his life and admits to being 'lost.'
The unraveling of this plot, which ends with Charlie in charge, entails a lot of talk, talk, talk and little action.
Nevertheless, director Gregory Mosher gets as much tautness out of 'Speed-the-Plow' as is implicit in the searing contempt, cynicism and fury displayed by its characters. The role of Karen, a young woman with no past that we know of, is an impossible one and Madonna has too little talent or theatrical imagination to make something of it, even with Mosher's expert help.
She is rigid, almost as though she is terrified to be on stage. Her voice has a one-note quality that becomes boring and her characterization is limited to superficialities that only establish Karen as an overly intent, patently naive young woman who is all too ready to admit she has done 'bad' things to establish rapport with a man all too ready to seduce her.
The sad thing is that almost any aspiring young actress in New York could have played this ingenue role with more authority than Madonna, who reportedly asked to audition for the role and won it thumbs up over all other auditioners. Mosher's published denial that her casting was calculated as a box-office lure is not to be believed. Why not admit the obvious?
Mantegna and Silver are very, very good as typical denizens of that 'sinkhole of slime and depravity' called Hollywood. Silver's Charlie is by far the slicker talker, the more emotionally volcanic, possibly the more intelligent. Mantegna's Bobby seems obtuse and thick-headed and Mamet makes him far less articulate in the constant ego-stroking that goes on between the two wheeler-dealers.
The three acts are mercifully brief though occasionally entertaining. This is a play of observation rather than discovery, leaving the audience with little to chew on that has not been repeatedly masticated on television's dramatized analyses of why people prefer power and money to happiness.
Mamet's undisputed mastery of colloquial dialogue and scatalogical humor fail to rescue 'Speed-the-Plow' from its essential banality.
The production has a cheap look that is out of line with most Lincoln Center Theater productions. Michael Merritt has framed the stage with a few raspberry colored curtains and scattered several pieces of furniture about, almost as a concession to the necessity of points of reference for the action. Nan Cibula's costumes have the California look, flashy diluted by baggy.
In case you're wondering where the title of the play comes from, here is what the show's spokesman had to say:
'Mr. Mamet hasn't said, and we haven't been able to nail that down. We heard that it was a variation of a line from a poem, but we don't know what poem.'
So much for the resourcefulness of Broadway press agents. A quick check of 'The Oxford Dictionary of Quotiations' shows that the title is a variant of Elizabethan poet and dramatist George Chapman's line, 'Speed his plow,' from his 1607 play, 'Bussy D'Ambois.' Mamet does not use the line in the play and why he used it for the title remains a mystery.