David Mamet

Manic Mamet

The Yale Cabaret is unexpectedly dark this weekend, so what’s a fan of New Haven theater to do? Answer: go see The New Haven Theater Company’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, delivered in quick and dirty fashion by director George Kulp at UpCrown Creative Studios on Crown Street. The play builds upon triads to create a dilemma: three characters, three scenes, and a choice: which of two films to “green light.” For recently promoted movie producer Bobby Gould (J. Kevin Smith, anxiously expansive), it’s not simply a choice about which film would do better or make more money, it’s also a choice about loyalties, about love and lust, about—yes, even in Hollywood—responsibility. The situation also carries implications of sexual politics and office politics. With the Petraeus scandal currently running amok in the press, the NHTC has yet again pulled out of its hat a play that speaks to its moment.

Of the two films, one is a sure-fire blockbuster—a buddy prison picture that would be a vehicle for Doug Brown, a big-name star—while the other is a do-gooder: a film about “the end of the world” through a nuclear disaster (think: The Morning After). The first film is pitched by Charlie Fox (Steve Scarpa, aggressive and fast-talking).  Sweaty and dying for a coffee, Charlie is a friend and colleague of Bobby’s from way back, who now is poised to deliver the coup that will make them both rich men and set them on to bigger and better things. The Brown film is the proverbial pot of gold the rainbow’s end always promised.

When Charlie enters, Bobby is giving a “courtesy read” to the nuclear disaster novel and scorning it. The idea of making it into a film is poised to be a joke until. . . . Male sexual one-upmanship rears it head when the two men bet on Bobby’s ability to seduce his pretty, temporary secretary, Karen (Megan Keith Chenot, lithe and blithe), who seems to know nothing about the film business and not much about being a secretary. Seemingly guileless, in other words. And, in Charlie’s view, not slutty enough to sleep with Bobby “just because,” and also not ambitious enough to sleep with him just to get ahead. So, the wager: if Bobby can get her into bed, it will have to be on the basis of his own charms.

The play’s middle scene, then, is the seduction scene at Bobby’s place, and the final scene is the fall-out, so to speak, on the morning after (10 a.m., time for the do-or-die meeting with Ross, the man upstairs whose OK is needed for the Doug Brown project). Bobby is only going to pitch one film and his new “change of heart” (if we can call it that) is leaning toward the disaster picture. What about friendship?

The strength of this production is that it moves at a fast and furious pace—Scarp and Smith are gangbusters at delivering the rapid-fire speech Mamet is famous for, talking over each other, responding to cues before the other has finished speaking. The technique creates a believable social friction between two colleagues, also friends, who know each other’s moves and are happy to be on the same page. Things slow down a bit with Karen, who at first, seen through the men’s eyes, seems like the kind of prize that goes with being newly made kings. Chenot plays Karen with detached intelligence: she doesn’t fawn over the men nor try to entice, but in the scene at Bobby’s place, all comfy on the couch, we see that her matter-of-factness about the quid pro quo seduction surprises Bobby, who still thinks you have to use subterfuge in these matters.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t expect to find in Mamet: the scene is almost sweet and is gently comical. It also shows how easily the manipulator becomes the manipulated. Karen, you see, believes passionately in the nuclear disaster picture, called The Bridge. And that passion, now shared suddenly by Bobby, becomes the bridge between them.  This part of the play would benefit from Smith switching gears a little more to convince us Bobby is convinced.

The play’s outcome can be read various ways, and one of the demands of Speed-the-Plow is that the production has to decide which way it’s going to go. Are we meant to side with Charlie or with Karen? Which film is in the “best interests” of Bobby, and what exactly are those interests and when should personal interest in a project be set aside for some other criteria, more neutral or more noble, as the case may be?

Is The Bridge part of a temptation best set aside, or is it the path to salvation?

Kulp's direction goes for the pragmatism of the play, which makes sense since it's hard to see a moral high-ground in Mamet's vision. The final scene climaxes with gripping precision: Scarpa explodes without making a mess and Smith manages to salvage Bobby’s dignity even as we see that he has ceased being his own man.

This is entertaining Mamet, and the NHTC keeps its eye on the ball throughout, delivering a speedy Speed-the-Plow.  It goes by fast, and you might have to lean forward a little to catch it all.

The play shows for two more nights, three performances: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 4 & 7 p.m.

Speed-the-Plow By David Mamet Directed by George Kulp Produced by Drew Gray

Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Lighting Technician: Tom DeChello

New Haven Theater Company at UpCrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, New Haven

November 14, 16, 17, 2012

Mamet Revisited

STP Postcard

Next Wednesday, November 14, The New Haven Theater Company kicks off its four show run of David Mamet’s edgy and entertaining play, Speed-the-Plow.  The director, George Kulp, and two of the three cast members were involved in the troupe’s production of the playwright’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010.  It’s good to see a return to Mamet as his dialogue-driven dramas bring out the strengths of the Company, letting them show off their ability with close ensemble work.  The key to good Mamet is pacing, and Kulp feels that his actors—J. Kevin Smith as Bobby Gould, a recently risen movie studio bigwig, Steve Scarpa as Charlie Fox, a lower-level associate but friend of long-standing, certain that he has a property that will be his big break, and Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, a temporary secretary new to the world of movie-making who might represent other values, or who might be a hustling go-getter—are finding new and interesting aspects of the play.

The NHTC’s recent productions have offered a certain degree of timeliness in this uncertain era of economic downturn.  I remember seeing their Glengarry Glen Ross on a night when the stock market hit a new low and the desperation of real estate salesmen in the play could easily extend to Wall Street traders.  Smith played the loquacious Ricky Roma, Scarpa was Williamson the less-than-savvy office manager, and Kulp played Shelly “Machine” Levine, the hinge for much of the pathos in the play.  All three actors were also involved in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which Scarpa directed with a relevant sense of solidarity and struggle at a time when there were OWS tents on the New Haven Green.  Then came their big production of Urinetown, the musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, a show with a theme of straitened circumstances and the tensions between haves and have-nots.  Kulp played Caldwell B. Cladwell, the resident big-wig, and Chenot played his daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby Strong, a rabble rouser.  Scarpa played Officer Barrell, a bullying cop who had more than a buddy’s affection for his partner Officer Lockstock.

Scarpa, a big fan of Mamet, initially proposed that the group tackle another of the playwright’s works, known for their bristling dialogue, earthy vocabulary, fast, overlapping exchanges and arresting non sequiturs.  Kulp offered to direct when he saw that Scarpa and Smith and Chenot were perfect for the roles.  “It’s great when we can find a play that matches us and what we do,” Kulp said, “I think people who have seen Kevin, Steve, and Megan in other plays will be impressed to see them stretch themselves as actors, as they do in this play.  I’m very honored to be working with them.”

The play will be staged at Upcrown on Crown Street, a new space for NHTC, but one with, Kulp says, an upscale classiness that makes it suitable for the slick office of a Hollywood movie producer.  Because NHTC doesn’t have a permanent theatrical space and makes do with what’s available, or what best suits (as in their staging of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio at Ultra Radio station on College Street), plays like Mamet’s, which don’t demand elaborate sets and can be produced almost anywhere, are ideal.

What might the play—which Kulp describes as a drama about one’s priorities and the decisions that make one question one’s loyalties—have to say to us following so closely on the heels of a major election?  The idea that someone might have second thoughts about a sure way to make money, in favor of a goal more worthwhile, could have some relevance.  Though Kulp and company are doing the play in the present day, Speed-the-Plow initially appeared in the Eighties, at a time when Hollywood was in search of bigger and bigger blockbusters.  One of the plot points is that Gould asks Karen to read a novel about the end of the world and then report on it—at his place. It’s a seduction ploy on his part, but he ends up swayed by her enthusiasm for the project.  Certainly, today, apocalyptic film scenarios are a dime-a-dozen and we might have reasons to question Karen’s sincerity; then again, the real concern isn’t the topics of the films pitched by Charlie and Karen, but rather the stakes of the “old boy” camaraderie between Bobby and Charlie and the more intangible and probably less enduring sex appeal between Bobby and Karen.  Still, at a time when more women are directors and producers and in politics than was the case in the Eighties, it will be interesting to see how Mamet’s power struggle plays out. What carries the day, in the end?  What, if anything, is Gould committed to?

The New Haven Theater Company is back, and they’re doing Mamet.  God speed the play.

David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow Directed by George Kulp

Upcrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, 2nd Floor November 14 & 16 at 7 p.m. November 17 at 4 p.m. &  7 p.m.

For tickets and info visit: New Haven Theater Company

Imminent Theater

Beginning this weekend and running for the next two, A Broken Umbrella Theatre brings its latest fall project to the Ives Main Library in New Haven.  If you know the work of ABUT, you know that they concoct new theatrical pieces as site-specific works in various historical New Haven locations.  The current work, entitled simply The Library Project, was commissioned by the New Haven Free Public Library Foundation to mark the 125th anniversary of the library, a fixture upon the green since 1887.

The audience will tour three floors of the library, moving from room to room in different groups, finding in their travels seven original works—involving song, dance, puppets, spectacle—staged in suitable areas of the building.  For instance, the story of “RIP” involves a muralist going between different times the way Rip Van Winkle does—and that segment is set in the basement of the library where the WPA murals featuring Rip are located.  All the segments feature some aspect of the history and function of the library, and are produced by the team of ABUT in collaboration with others—ABUT’s ranks for this production, their grandest yet, have been expanded to over 60 participants, all volunteer, including the Executive Director of the New Haven Free Public Library, Christopher Korenowsky, and Will Baker, Executive Director of the Institute Library (which predates the NHFPL).

If earlier ABUT projects are any indication, the show will be entertaining, lively, and fun for viewers age 8 and up.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre is committed to making theater accessible to all, so the pricing for the shows is “pay what you can.”  Reservations are strongly recommended: www.abrokenumbrella.org.  Box office opens one hour prior to the show at Ives Main Library, 133 Elm Street, New Haven.  And before the show begins, you can avail yourself of beer or wine in the lobby and chat about the facts behind the fiction with ABUT’s Artistic Directory Ian Alderman and historian Colin Caplan.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre The Library Project October 20–21, 27–28; November 3–4 Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Sundays at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Later in November, New Haven’s other local theater group, New Haven Theater Company, will be mounting David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, another intense, confrontational play from the master of late 20th-century speak.  Directed by company member George Kulp, the show includes two members of last year’s ambitious NHTC project, Urinetown: Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, and Steve Scarpa, who directed last year’s rousing Waiting for Lefty, as Fox; J. Kevin Smith, memorable as Ricky Roma in the NHTC production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, plays Gould.

Mamet is the go-to guy for small theater companies like NHTC, as his dramas have small casts, don’t require much scenery, and offer commanding showcases for character interaction.  NHTC has already been noted for their grasp of Mametry with Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed the Plow which, yes, actually features a woman in its cast, should give them ample opportunity to sling speech in this satire of movie industry insiders.  Gould is the new Head of Production at a major Hollywood studio, and Fox, his friend for 11 years, brings him a project: a film that should be a blockbuster and make them both rich.  Karen, an office temp, questions the value of the film, opening up Gould and Fox to considerations of their priorities.

New Haven Theater Company David Mamet's Speed the Plow UpCrown Studios, 216 Crown Street, New Haven

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m. Friday, November 16, 7 p.m. Saturday, November 17, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and go on sale Tuesday, October 23.


Trial By Friendship

American Buffalo, first produced in 1975 in Chicago, then on Broadway in 1977, is noted as the play that established playwright David Mamet as the premiere poet of American speech—emphatic, riddled with profanity, full of vague nouns with referents that change according to context, with meaning guided always by inflection.  Mamet’s influence has been so pervasive that it’s hard to say at times whether he simply found the means to convey the way we talk or in fact invented a mannerism we now recognize as our own.  It does seem to be the case that the dialogue in his plays has ceased to be unsettling and become “normal.” Staged in Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery, the Elm Shakespeare production of America Buffalo, directed by Mark Zeisler, could be said to offer an immediate contradiction: Mamet’s trio of seedy shop flies in an art gallery?  Could it be that Mamet’s style of visceral, streetwise theater has become a museum piece?   Perhaps, as there’s no denying that the used goods shop that comprises Elizabeth Bolster’s spare but effective set is situated in a setting that is genteely artsy.  It might’ve been interesting to have staged the play in some abandoned New Haven retail space, but, that said, the fictional shop the characters inhabit wouldn’t be out of place on Whalley Avenue, home of the gallery, and so the immediate locale lends a certain aura of authenticity to the production.

The play itself is dialogue driven, so there’s no problem staging it in a confined space, and the closer the audience is to the action, the better.  We hover on the periphery of the card table, small desk and display case of the shop, watching interactions that could be taking place in our midst.  With no great distance to overcome in the staging, this American Buffalo finds its virtues in being intimate and realistic, its scale measured to a confined space we share with its characters.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  As Donny Dubrow, the proprietor of the store, Tracy Griswold looks perfect for the part—lean, experienced, accommodating.  He appears as a small-time businessman, essentially trusting, but also on the lookout for weaknesses in others that may be to his benefit: the kind of man who could strike a hard bargain or choose to be generous, as he sees fit.  His plan to pull off “a score” on an unsuspecting well-heeled guy who visited his shop earlier and paid $90 for an American buffalo nickel is the dramatic focus, and, though criminal in his intentions, Donny is the good heart of the play.  Donny’s effort to remain simpatico with his confreres, even when they lie to him and bully him, is of the essence of Mamet’s vision of the odd sincerities found in the midst of the dog-eat-dog world of daily life, an essence that Griswold’s face is able to express as he listens to the others.

As Bob, an addict who Donny would like to help, by employing him as his errand boy, and who he tries to mentor in a small way, Ryan Barry owns the part.  He’s got the requisite slow speech, seemingly of one not all there, but he also can convey the idea that Bob is sharper than we—and his friends—think he is.  Bob is a man of few words, almost everything he says is pulled out of him by Donny, and Barry is terrific at making Bob’s minimal words carry the weight and ambiguity Mamet requires.  He has a tendency to repeat what’s said to him, a buying-time device that also seems to question everything he’s told, and, often, even what he himself says.  This is important because how the plot “resolves” has to do with when Bob is lying and why.  Zeisler’s actors are able to express a lot about their characters when they are silent as much as when they speak.

As Teach, the friendly nemesis of the slow-talking duo, a garrulous ne’er-do-well with an inflated opinion of himself, James Andreassi is a live wire.  He pitches his voice to achieve what seems always to be a reasonable tone, even when he’s spouting nonsense or berating others for situations he himself creates.  He has the ability to apologize and accuse in the same breath.  In Teach, Mamet creates an important American type: the mastermind of speculative supposition.  Teach has an explanation for everything, a way of creating narratives that suit his turn of mind, usually based on suspicions, irritations, gripes and grudges.  Constantly wiping back his longish hair, throwing his size around, restlessly grabbing chairs, checking himself in the mirror, looking musingly or anxiously out the storefront at the street, Andreassi’s Teach is a man of useless activity, all his energy in service to a fantasy in which he makes a big score or saves the day.  The drama of the play is to watch how his reckless need for control and self-assertion brings everything to a standstill, and, as Donny says, spreads “poison.”

American Buffalo is about small-timers in hard times, grasping at straws.  The bleakness of these characters’ lives comes out slowly, allowing us to sympathize with their criminal plot, if only to see something go right for them.  A working assumption of the play is that when “bad guys” are our “heroes,” someone will have to be worse than bad.   Rather than scaring us with ruthlessness, the method of Zeisler’s production is to make these guys, even Teach, likeable enough and typical enough—and funny enough—to keep us on their side, sort of, to make us relax and accept them, so that their moral lapses and failures of imagination are ours as well.

Local in feel, relentless in pacing, familiar in its hard truths, Elm Shakespeare’s American Buffalo delivers.

American Buffalo By David Mamet Directed by Mark Zeisler, with: Dave Stephen Baker (Sound & Original Music), Elizabeth Bolster (Costume & Set Design), Jamie Burnett (Lighting), Emily DiNardo (Stage Manager), Emmett Cassidy and Liz Cecere (Tech Crew)

The Elm Shakespeare Company May 10-13 and 17-20

The Kehler Liddell Gallery 873 Whalley Avenue, New Haven

For tickets and information: www.elmshakespeare.org / 203.393.1436 / info@elmshakespeare.org