A New Generation Tackles Speed-the-Plow for Broadway

By Kenneth Jones
23 Sep 2008

Speed-the-Plow star Jeremy Piven
Speed-the-Plow star Jeremy Piven
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Neil Pepe, Elisabeth Moss and Raul Esparza look at David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow through fresh lenses.

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Two decades after its Tony Award-nominated bow, Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet's comedy about two Hollywood sharks whose movie pitch is interrupted — to say the least — by a temp worker, is heading back to Broadway.

Director Neil Pepe told Playbill Radio's Robert Viagas that the new production isn't a carbon copy of the 1988 production, though the art vs. commerce ideas in the play are timeless and still with us. Expect a more youthful, sexy production, perhaps, complete with emotional explosions that come from desperate characters whose dreams are slipping from their grasp.



"I've always thought it's not only a remarkable story but…in thinking about a revival of it, it's particularly timely, maybe even more timely than it was when it was first written," Pepe said early in the rehearsal process. He said "the issues that it's dealing with in terms of art and commerce, and what's going on in Hollywood versus what's going on with the environment" make it ring true today.

Think of the play as a fable of a tadpole who changes the water temperature in a tank of sharks.

In the play, the tadpole is a temp secretary name Karen who threatens to snuff a Hollywood deal (a prison movie, no less) when she advocates a script by an East Coast writer whose subject is the future of the world.

Karen was famously played by Madonna in 1988. (Frank Rich of The New York Times raved about her, while other critics scratched their heads.) Madonna raised the blood pressure of Ron Silver (who won a Best Actor Tony Award) as producer Charlie Fox and Joe Mantegna as studio head-of-production Bobby Gould. There was a middle-aged quality about the original Bobby and Charlie, who were on a deadline and seeking the "greenlighting" of that prison movie. This time around, Emmy Award winner Jeremy Piven (TV's "Entourage") is Bobby, and Tony Award nominee Raúl Esparza (Company) is Charlie. They both read younger than the original players — sexier, maybe. Elisabeth Moss, the poker-faced actress of TV's "The West Wing" and "Man Men," is Karen this time around.

Pepe said he was attracted to "the chance to do this story with this fantastic younger group of actors, all of whom I've always admired, both their work onstage and their work on TV and film."

Three factors in Pepe jumping at this project were "a long friendship [with writer Mamet, who co-founded Atlantic Theater Company, of which Pepe is artistic director], of being a huge fan of the play, and this sort of new take on this play."

Previews begin Oct. 2 at the Barrymore Theatre toward an opening of Oct. 23.

The producers bill Speed-the-Plow as "Mamet's scathing portrait of the film industry and the people who are willing to sell their souls for sex, fame and fortune."

Pepe said, "I think it's a wonderfully vibrant, hilarious and very compelling story about the struggles of what it means to keep the truth of who you are in a sort of environment that's very commerce-oriented."

Will this Speed-the-Plow be sexy, as the producers seem to suggest?

"I think it will, to a certain extent," Pepe said. "These guys are younger and I think they are hot and sexy, as [producer] Jeff [Richards] says. I think that the play is very alive. It's a great play for not only people who are fans of David Mamet, but also for young people. It really is about issues that are kind of exciting — about what it means to close a deal in Hollywood, what it means to get into the film business, what it means to be true to yourself."

He added with a laugh, "Sure, hot and sexy, I'll take it! But it's a great play. It's for people who like great compelling stories that have something interesting to say about the world in which we live… This particular group of actors, I just think they're explosive and quite unique and really exciting."

Moss, who will make her Broadway debut (as will Piven), told Playbill Radio, "I think Karen is sort of the catalyst in the play, and she represents truth and honesty and…she raises the question of art versus business and what you can do with filmmaking and what you can't do and how to make a good film and still have people see it. It's interesting because Mamet is somebody who has actually done that. He's somebody who makes good art, but people still listen to him and people watch, and that's a very rare thing. So it's interesting that he's the one who wrote this play."

She added, "I think she's very honest, she's very open, she's has no judgment, and she's incapable of lying — and I think in a Mamet play, that's very interesting."

Moss said she and the company had dinner with Mamet in Los Angeles. "It's incredible to have dinner with such a brilliant man and to get to actually ask him questions about the play that he wrote," she said on Day 2 of rehearsal. "We all sort of received personal notes from him yesterday."

Esparza told Playbill Radio, "David was very clear about what he thinks the play is about and why he wrote it and what things are going on in it. I won't tell anybody because that's going to be useful for me and not for the audience. We are starting to figure out where the power plays happen and how the show works. It's really about two really good friends who end up betraying each other. Whether one of us is a villain and one of us is a good guy remains to be seen, from the audience. Hopefully we'll play it so that everybody's potentially both good and bad. …The clearest thing we picked up from David, for me at least, is that it's not about playing these people like they are twirling their evil mustaches and sitting around cackling in corners…"

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Interviews with the creators of Speed-the-Plow will be heard on PlaybillRadio.com's "Playbill Presents" program starting Sept. 24 at 7 PM (ET). A podcast version will become available in early October. Visit PlaybillRadio.com for the complete programming schedule.