PLAYBILL PICKS: David Mamet's Five Most Memorable Men

By Robert Simonson
25 Oct 2012

Raúl Esparza as Charlie Fox in the 2008 Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Charlie Fox, Speed-the-Plow

Charlie Fox would recognize Ricky Roma as one of his own breed — dresses well, talks fast, accepts nothing less than success and always on the make. But Charlie might think Ricky was in a chump profession. Real estate? How much green, in the end, can you make from that? And where's the glamour? Now, movies — there's a field!

Speed-the-Plow is Mamet's Hollywood play. Same snakes, different city. In the three-hander, independent producer Charlie Fox pitches his pal, newly appointed studio head Bobby Gould, with a package deal surrounding a reigning film star named Doug Brown. The project is green-lighted — until Bobby's idealistic secretary weasels her way into Gould's affections and convinces him to make a serious movie about the effects of radiation. The disbelieving Fox explodes, becoming perhaps the only man in Hollywood history, actual or fictional, to seal a deal by clocking a studio honcho in the face.

The play had a memorable debut, with Joe Mantenga as Gould, Ron Silver as Charlie and none other than Madonna as the secretary. It was revived on Broadway in 2008. That staging became infamous for cast member Jeremy Piven's sudden departure, leading to array of players replacing him as Gould, including Lage, Macy and Norbert Leo Butz.

Similar to Glengarry's balance between Levine and Roma, Speed's protagonist would seem to be Gould, but Fox is really the headline-grabbing part. He's the firecracker; the scrappy, funny one; the man whose suit is cut as sharp as his stiletto. Silver won a Tony for his performance, and Esparza, who played it in 2008, was nominated.

Ron Silver and Madonna in the original Broadway staging.
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

"I think Charlie's a phenomenal character," said Esparza. "What's cool about Charlie is there's an unscrupulousness to him that he has no idea he possesses. He thinks he's a good friend; Charlie thinks he's doing his work. They're friends. It's cool. They're going to party. Like two frat guys. There's a sort of innocence to his debauchery. He has no idea what a monster he's capable of becoming. It's where he goes. He's got a knife in his hand instantaneously. The other thing that's great about him is his language: the witticisms are so extraordinary, but they're wielded like weapons. It plays like jazz when you're on stage. It's the closest an actor can come to riffing. It's got its beat."

"His bluntness and savagery are, like Roma's, pure audience crowd-pleasers," stated Lage, "and the actor playing him can have a ball. Mamet, of course, is a genius wordsmith, and he gave Fox some of the choicest lines in his entire canon." He added, "Fox and Gould's rat-a-tat dialogue together in Act One is about as close to a duet without singing as you can come."

"No question," said Pepe, who directed the 2008 Broadway production. "That's the part. He's not the anchor; Bobby Gould has all the power. But Charlie's life is on the line. He's got the great first speech. And then he goes ballistic when he feels like he's been betrayed. It's that same three-character structure [as in American Buffalo], but Mamet reinvented it for Hollywood."

Mosher, who directed the premiere of the play, also saw a connection to American Buffalo. "Clean Teach up, put him in a Versace suit, send him to Hollywood to make movies, and he's Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow."