Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: (Ottawa) Speed-the-Plow

More Than Madonna
When libido and midlife crisis meet head on, impartial judgement is lost.
by Jim Murchison

I confess that I didn’t know a lot about Speed-the-Plow, other than it was the vehicle that launched Madonna’s Broadway career.  The irony of a play about marketing over substance, that used a pop star like Madonna to sell a million dollars in advance tickets, did not go unnoticed by the critics at the time. Fortunately, small Canadian theatre companies are not encumbered with the dilemma of hiring a pop icon, so we can concentrate on the merits of this production instead. Oh yeah, I hear Madonna is back in the music business.

There is a difference between speed and pace.

The basic theme of David Mamet’s play is not peculiar to the film industry in which it is set. Bobby Gould, a recently promoted film executive, still somewhat insecure in his new found power, has the property of a lifetime dropped in his lap by Charlie Fox, the very man who was overlooked for the same job. Charlie decides to put aside his professional jealousy and resentment and bring the project to Bobby so that he can broker the best deal. Of course there is another project, that is more artistic or pretentious depending on your point of view. Karen, the new temp, is in charge of reporting back to Bobby on the merits of the work, which is like putting the serpent in charge of reporting back on why you should taste the apple. When libido and midlife crisis meet head on, impartial judgement is lost.

Ivo Valentik designed set, costumes and sound. The most impressive of these elements was the set. The white skeletal grid suggests a skyscraper penthouse or something still in development and at the same time the tapering angles of the frame add depth to the office. 

Director Teri Loretto-Valentik sacrificed some needed texture by filling all the spaces so completely that the play didn’t truly breathe.

There is a difference between speed and pace. The beginning of the play is a bit rushed, and in an odd way that slows down the development of the story, because the audience is trying to catch up. When dialogue is rushed some of the nuance is swallowed up and the humour gets lost. In some types of farce pure speed can work, because the physical jokes are so strong that an audience is caught up in the facial expressions and body language of the actors. In a David Mamet play, it is integral to let that language flow even when the characters are stepping on each other and cutting each other off, because there is not a lot of grand gesture to support it. The language itself is the star.

Director Teri Loretto-Valentik sacrificed some needed texture by filling all the spaces so completely that the play didn’t truly breathe. It took a little longer for the audience to know the characters. This was particularly a problem in the first act. Opening night jitters and some technical problems may have contributed to this.

Chris Ralph, as Charlie Fox, most often hit the right notes, successfully bounding from pandering to badgering and graduating to outright bullying.  He also has the advantage of having the most likable character early on, fully honest about his own greed and not afraid to peel back the shiny layers of the cinematic onion and reveal its stinky heart.

John Muggleton, as Bobby Gould, was very effective in his scenes with Karen and particularly funny when dumbfounded by his own doubt. I think it would have served the play better had he been permitted to be more overpowering over Charlie early on. 

As Karen, Kyla  Gray, has a very good debut giving her character a fairly even balance of feigned naivety and reserved seductiveness that quite properly makes you wonder about the level of her ambition.

By the third act, the cast did find its’ legs and the play finished strongly. Pockets of the audience showed their appreciation with cheers and a standing ovation. I wasn’t among them because I felt  the overall impact had been diminished by the first Act.

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