Riveting 'Speed-the-Plow' Gets In Digs at Hollywood

"If you can't put it in one sentence, they can't put it in 'TV Guide' "--such is the overriding cultural imperative ruling would-be movie deal makers in David Mamet's hilariously sardonic vision of Tinseltown, "Speed-the-Plow." Given the close-to-home subject matter, it's hard to believe it took 10 years for this play to find its way to an L.A. theater, but Elina deSantos' riveting staging for the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble was worth the wait.

Impressively navigating the choppy currents of Mamet's opaque, testosterone-heavy dialogue, the three-member cast brings pinpoint intensity to the quandary facing Bobby Gould (Casey Biggs), a newly promoted studio exec who makes a movie the way he takes his coffee--with "nothing in it." Bobby's friend Charlie (Jack Stehlin) urges him to green-light the formula star-vehicle project he's put together, while his seductive new secretary (Stacy Solodkin) challenges him to discover his finer self and film something that matters--a highbrow novel about the end of the world.

It's both remarkable and disturbing how easily the profanity-laden, grammar-mangling street vernacular of Mamet's typical lowlifes transposes into the mouths of these lofty purveyors of public taste--but then that's exactly the point. There's an inevitable progression from broken syntax to incomplete thought to high concept, and the resolution of Bobby's dilemma is never much in doubt.

Naturally, Mamet has stacked the deck here. The "meaningful" novel is a cesspool of pretentious cant. And confining the secretary to the guys' playing field ignores the broader and subtler feminine power arsenal that director deSantos explored so insightfully in "Awake and Sing!" at the Odyssey. Clearly respecting the playwright's intentions, she doesn't tamper with Mamet's dynamics of control but finds other ways to make the character credible, primarily through Solodkin's appealing performance.

It's Stehlin, though, who electrifies the piece with his metamorphosis from groveling supplicant to dominator in one of those stunning power-reversal scenes at which Mamet is the undisputed champ. As with all truly masterful sleight of hand, seeing through the trick doesn't diminish its marvel.

* "Speed-the-Plow," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. except March 2, 16, 2 p.m. Ends March 23. $18.50-22.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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