Theater

In Two Revivals, Some Stars Are Brighter Than Others

(By Joan Marcus Via Associated Press)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

NEW YORK

It requires no leap of imagination to envision ferocious Jeremy Piven of "Entourage" fame in a play by David Mamet -- especially one drenched in filthy Tinseltown lucre. And yet, amid the toxic delights of the Broadway revival of "Speed-the-Plow," Piven is not merely summoning his inner Ari Gold. He opts to take us in a tantalizing new direction, as a Hollywood player with, of all things, a conscience.

He's one of a trio of actors offering up surprising variations on proven talents in the sleekly seductive production that opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Elisabeth Moss -- who each week portrays a wily small fry in an advertising-world shark tank on cable television's "Mad Men" -- materializes incisively here as a gofer with a gift for quick study. And Raúl Esparza, the brooding leading man of Broadway's recent remounting of "Company," makes a smashing impact in the role of a twitchy studio functionary who's waited too long for his big score.

The skills of Piven, Moss and Esparza are marshaled so stylishly that you must stop and salute the leadership of director Neil Pepe, who allows us to see plainly the relevance retained by this 20-year-old smack-down of showbiz cynicism. The up-to-the-minute tension comes from the ominous signs in the world beyond the back lots and three-picture deals, a world that the L.A. dreammakers try ordinarily to keep at bay.

In "Speed-the-Plow," the spiritual vacuum inhabited by the studio's new head of production, Piven's Bobby Gould, is violently disturbed by his temp, Moss's Karen (who's not even high enough on the food chain to warrant a last name). What she does is alert him to the possibility of a higher purpose, to bring the white light of edification to his role as greenlighter. Given that Bobby and his slavish if resentful underling, Esparza's Charlie Fox, guiltlessly proclaim themselves "whores," her task seems a stunningly uphill climb.

The play, over in a 90-minute blink, might not be an achievement on the high plateau with "Glengarry Glen Ross," Mamet's last word on the dog-eat-dog ethos of the American salesman. Although written later, "Speed-the-Plow" feels as if it were a forerunner of "Glengarry." Compared with the full-blown theatrical rush supplied by that earlier, Pulitzer-winning comedy-drama, "Speed" provides only a pungent buzz.

And that's delectable enough. "Speed-the-Plow" -- a title apparently intended to connote something about a keep-your-head-down dedication to the working life -- is divided into three terse scenes, the bookend sequences taking place in Bobby's cool, neutral-colored office. He and Charlie are on the brink of a major coup; Charlie has persuaded some megastar of action movies (the play's roots are in the Schwarzenegger era) to make his next film at the studio. Their deal is blown off course, however, after predatory Bobby invites Karen to his home -- on the ruse of having her report on the cinematic potential of a philosophical book, which Bobby knows would never in a million years be made.

Except that Karen -- whose idealism is of a very pragmatic variety -- falls in love with the tome and uses her unexpectedly formidable powers of persuasion to convert Bobby. We're not quite sure whether the Piven character's change of heart has more to do with libido than soul, but in either case it triggers a splendid final office scene, in which the captivating Esparza lays down the law in crackling fashion.

It's worth recalling that Karen was played in the original Broadway production by none other than Madonna. That bit of casting felt like a stunt then, just as the recruiting of a headline-grabbing starlet seems more calculation than inspiration in the recently opened revival of a tempestuous American work about the corrosive impact of ill-gotten riches: Arthur Miller's "All My Sons."

Katie Holmes turns in a deflatingly monochromatic performance in a vital supporting role in director Simon McBurney's overwrought production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The play, revolving around the coverup of the crimes of a World War II profiteer portrayed by the terrific John Lithgow, is pumped up to the kind of operatic tragedy in which you expect people to engage in wailing and garment-rending.

Superfluous projections of armament assembly lines embroider scenes in which characters talk about armament assembly lines. Actors playing neighbors double as a chorus, whose members contort as if they're models for the painting "Guernica." The unnecessary editorializing almost obscures the outstanding work of Patrick Wilson, playing the compliant son who must absorb the devastating fact of his father's evil.

Holmes is the young woman whom the brother of Wilson's Chris was to marry before he died in the war. Now she's set her sights on Chris. She's supposed to seem pretty special. Like the production itself, though, her shouted performance comes across as something less.

Speed-the-Plow, by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Laura Bauer; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; fight director, J. David Brimmer. About 90 minutes. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.

All My Sons, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Simon McBurney. Sets and costumes, Tom Pye; lighting, Paul Anderson; sound, Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing; projections, Finn Ross for Mesmer. With Dianne Wiest, Damian Young, Becky Ann Baker, Jordan Gelber, Christian Camargo, Danielle Ferland. About 2 1/2 hours. At Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.


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