PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Speed-the-Plow — Heart vs. Commerce

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Speed-the-Plow — Heart vs. Commerce Meet the first-nighters of Broadway's new production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow.
Jeremy Piven, Ra
Jeremy Piven, Ra Photo by Aubrey Reuben

That may well have been the idea for the vintage starting-time — to evoke perhaps that bygone era of the play-play. And certainly the morsel on display was compact enough to make for a light sentence, but the buzz and hoopla that preceded the play galloped out of control as usual, and a long night was had by all. The after-party, shoehorned into The Red-Eye Grill, sported a full complement of red-eyed guests.

David Mamet's ferociously funny, fast-track roller-coaster ride through the ups and downs, hills and hells of Hollywood clocked in at a concise 85 minutes, under Neil Pepe's tight-reined direction. And the dialogue was dished out at 90-mph by Jeremy Piven, Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss in roles of snarling Tinseltown pit-bulls originated in 1988 by Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and some kind of Madonna.

Piven is Bobby Gould, the new and wobbly Head of Production at a major studio, and Esparza is Charlie Fox, an ambitious also-ran he always saw over his shoulder in the studio mail-room 11 years ago. What a difference a decade makes. Fox is now a deal-packaging producer with a plausible blockbuster to bounce off the susceptible Gould. Scene One is their "Let's Make a Deal" dance all over the executive's office.

Scene Two takes place at Gould's den-of-iniquity-away-from the office — i.e., his home where his temporary secretary, Karen (Moss), has been summoned to deliver a book report on one of his "courtesy reads," an esoteric, apocalyptic novel by "a sissy British writer" that positively screams uncommercial. She, however, sees the good in the story and, even more importantly, the good in Gould, effectively turning his head around to the noble and high-minded. Comes the dawn, and Scene Three, it falls to Fox to annihilate this sex-sealed deal and restore Gould to his former crassness.

"It's like a tennis match," proffered Esparza about his high-octane war, "a vaudeville routine. It's like a couple of great comics kicking the crap out of each other. I especially love it because it reminds me of the work I got to do out in Chicago." It doesn't hurt — at least in a painful way — that his sparring partner also has some Chicago acting chops: "Jeremy knows what it is. He's fearless, and that's fantastic to work with. I love that, and he knows this. He has been on stage most of his life.

"It's a difficult balancing act. I keep saying this over and over — it's like 'I've got the noun, and you've got the verb.' David doesn't write in complete sentences. He throws the idea around between his actors and forces you to be an ensemble."

Esparza rants and rails like a seasoned Mamet malcontent, but in truth this is his first whack at The Anvil Chorus. "I've seen a lot of Mamet's work," he quickly qualified. "I saw Steppenwolf do The Cryptogram. I've seen William Petersen do his work. I've seen Mike Nussbaum do his work. I've seen [Mamet's] 'guys' do his work so I knew what the sense of it is. It's exhilarating when you're doing it right. Exhilarating. As a matter of fact, the other day we were flying and Neil had to flag us down."

And what does Esparza like about his character? "Well, I think Charlie's honest," he replied after some thought, careful to give that last word a "there's that" inflection. "He's pretty despicable, but he is who he says he is." Then, again, on second thought: "I don't know if he's despicable. He's a hard worker, and he wants what he wants."

It is, he was reminded, the kind of role that wins Tonys. "That's what I heard. Ronnie won it, right? Yeah." Twice-burned, he broke into Tony-cured mode: "I've given up on that gig, let me tell ya. It's whatever. Whatever, baby. Don't do it for the prizes."

For possible Tony competition, he has only to look across the stage. Piven's Broadway-debut performance is a return-serve equal and betrays a theatrical background, despite his current fame and three-Emmy acclaim as Tinseltown ten-percenter Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage." For proof — and just to show you what a sweet puss he really is (contrary to the characters he plays) — he had sitting at his table on his first official night on Broadway his mom, who still runs the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, where at age eight he took his first faltering steps toward this milestone. Ari Gold would have sent his mother a telegram.

Piven seconded the acting chemistry that went on between him and Esparza on stage and was particular pleased that the opening-night buzz was that their on-stage fisticuffs had left him with unscripted blood. "No," he said, "I was not injured at all — there wasn't any real blood — but I'm delighted that you had to ask me about it."

Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, John Slattery, Ian McShane, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Martha Plimpton, Patricia Clarkson, Bryan Batt, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, Michael Urie, Vincent Kartheiser, Cady Huffman and Julie White, Tom Hulce, and Jonathan Groff with Brian CharlesJohnson
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Following Madonna (and Felicity Huffman after her) as the play's contentious female factor was no problem for Moss. In fact, her Broadway debut is something of a Career Day field trip from TV's "Mad Men," where she is a secretary in a Madison Avenue advertising agency working her way up through the ranks as a copywriter. Lessons are to be learned from the express route that Karen takes in Speed-the-Plow. This was the role that made people stop saying Mamet only wrote men's roles. "I love her," Moss admitted. "I think she's a great character — one of the most difficult characters Mamet has ever written. He hadn't written that many real female roles on the stage. There's, like, two or three. It's difficult to play, but I love playing her."

Initially, with The Material Girl in charge, it was quite easy to suspect Karen of ulterior, manipulative motives, but Moss plays her as a guileless, gullible lamb flanked by Hollywood wolves. "I think she's a true believer," said the actress. "I have a lot of sympathy for this character. I think she is honest and being truthful and trying to do the right thing. It's easy to kinda think the wrong thing about her."

The third Broadway bow marked by this production occurred backstage. Speed-the-Plow is the big step uptown for director Pepe after toiling in the vineyards of Off-Broadway as artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company for 16 years. "I've really been directing a lot, probably 13 or 14 years," Pepe guesstimated. "This is the perfect time for me to do this. I feel blessed to have directed so many Off-Broadway plays, so many David Mamet plays and Pinter and Ethan Coen. So I feel fortunate to have come to Broadway with this amazing play and incredible cast."

Opening-night nerves weren't an issue for him, according Mary McCann, the Atlantic regular who is his sometimes co-star and constant wife. "I have to say his most nervous moment was the night before David Mamet came," she recalled. "David is an old friend, but you know you want it to be what he would like. I was out of town, but Neil called me the next morning. He sounded like a little kid. 'He loved it!'"

The awesome job of understudying both men's roles has been entrusted to Atlantic mainstay Jordan Lage, who has logged up his share of Mamet on Broadway (The Old Neighborhood and the most recent Glengarry Glen Ross). "I've had to cram a lot of lines in my head. Now, I run the lines every day for, like, two and a half hours."

Lage contended that Pepe is particularly attuned to the music of Mamet, who happens to be a founding father at Atlantic and had numerous plays directed there by Pepe. "Neil gets it. I think that's an extra added dividend of being around David all the time. You get to know the guy, you get to know his work intimately, and you get a real feel for his rhythms. Musicality is a perfect word for David's dialogue."

Mamet, as is his wont, was M.I.A. on opening night. "David is in California," lead producer Jeffrey Richards enlightened when the elephant not in the room was finally addressed. "I read him the review from The Times, which was a rave. He was absolutely delighted by it. He said, 'So what'll we do after Jeremy and Raul leave?'"

Cauldron-stirrer that I am, I suggested Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum, who won raves with the play last year in London and were hoping to bring their production over. "I saw the London production, and I thought Kevin and Jeff were fine," said Richards. "If they want to come over to Broadway for eight weeks, Jerry Frankel and I would welcome them to come in and replace. They were wonderful."

The reason Richards and Frankel didn't import that production was because, simply, the die had been cast. "Jerry and I had made a commitment to Neil. We believed in his talent. This was an opportunity for him to direct on Broadway. He delivered in spades. We're thrilled with this production. I also think this is a major rediscovery. It was overshadowed originally because of the celebrity and aura of Madonna."

Most of the starry first-nighters came from two camps. There was the "Mad Men" contingent supporting Moss in her Broadway bow, and there was the Off-Broadway contingent supporting Pepe in his. Among the "Mad Men" were Jon Hamm (with Minsky's-bound gal Jennifer Westfeldt), Vincent Kartheiser, Bryan Batt (with Patricia Clarkson), Michael Gladis, John Slattery, Rich Sommer and series creator Matthew Weiner.

Pepe's cheering section included Jonathan Cake, Chris Bauer (whose wife Laura did the show's costume design), Martha Plimpton, David Pittu and Peter Bartlett (whose What's That Smell moves to New World Stages Nov. 1), Tom Hulce and Emily Mortimer.

Also: Julie White, Cady Huffman, Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts, Robert Kimball, Christine Pedi, Brian Charles Johnson, Michael Urie of "Ugly Betty," Kathleen Turner, Marian Seldes, Stephanie March, Robert Kline, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Gareth Saxe, Ian McShane and Andrew McCarthy.

The cast of <i>Speed-the-Plow</i> at curtain call.
The cast of Speed-the-Plow at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben