Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Illustration by PaprikaPhoto: Brigitte Lacombe

Why, oh why, did Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss take these parts in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow? Each of these actors has some stage background, so it’s a disappointment to watch them both make their Broadway debuts in roles that stray only a little from their familiar TV personas. On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Raúl Esparza is playing Hollywood gunner Charlie Fox: Esparza wipes the stage with his co-stars.

Art shouldn’t be a competition, you might argue, but, to quote Charlie Fox: Fuck you … you squat to pee. That’s how Mamet writes his plays, with words as weapons and power the prize. Admittedly, the playing field is tilted in Speed-the-Plow, with Charlie getting most of the best lines, but Esparza so nails the particular aggressiveness of Mamet’s Hollywood phony that resentment and ego transform even Charlie’s thank-yous and apologies into thrusts and slashes.

And when he explicitly goes on the attack? Esparza plays the eventual explosion of Charlie Fox—a midlevel studio executive who brings a star-driven prison movie to his new head of production, Bobby Gould (Piven)—less volcanically than you might expect, which makes the play’s sudden violence far more believable. Esparza’s Fox doesn’t lash out—he delivers a surgical strike, refusing to let his emotions preempt the specific tasks he must accomplish to ensure his victory. Close on the heels of his much-admired Pinter and Sondheim showcases, the actor’s fluency in Mametese suggests he’s rapidly becoming a premier interpreter of the trickiest modern masters.

So too bad his co-stars are so hopelessly overmatched, playing characters who are dull 2/4 riffs on the 5/4 weirdness of their respective television roles. As Mad Men’s Peggy, Moss is all corrosive secrets and spiky insight; here, her Karen is an innocent who pelts the men with a 3-year-old’s Why? again and again. Smart as she is, Moss can’t find a way to animate that empty shell. Piven is dextrous enough with Mamet’s dialogue, but Bobby Gould differs from Entourage superagent Ari Gold only in that he possesses a mild sense of self-doubt and a gnawing desire to do the right thing—character flaws for which Speed-the-Plow summarily humiliates him.

Indeed, the play offers no evidence Mamet himself disagrees with Fox’s evaluations of the literary novel Karen wants to put onscreen (“a piece of shit”) or of Gould’s belated flailing for principles (“What is this? Menopause?”). That gets at the core problem of Speed-the-Plow’s view of Hollywood, which is simplistic even for satire. In Mamet’s eyes, the only options are crappy Commerce and crappy Art—“Douggie Brown prison movies” or postapocalyptic novels by “Eastern sissy writers.” So what exactly does Mamet want Hollywood to make?

All of the above leads to a nagging question that’s exacerbated by the casting, one that director Neil Pepe never quite solves, no matter how many bits of outrageous stage business he deploys alongside the rat-a-tat dialogue. (If you’re going to let Esparza hump a desk, maybe it’d be okay to cut Piven’s pretending to shit a script into the wastebasket.) What viewer, watching Esparza manhandle Piven from the get-go, would ever believe that sharky Charlie Fox has spent the past eleven years riding windy Bobby Gould’s coattails? If conscience is poison and rapacity is power in Mamet’s Hollywood, why isn’t Charlie Fox head of the studio already? –D.K.

Romantic Poetry, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, is a musical comedy of modest ambitions, and it doesn’t meet any of them. Two couples alternately deflate and celebrate the notion of romantic love, a classic convention that doesn’t necessarily result in classic material: A Long Island bride and a New Jersey groom (Emily Swallow and Ivan Hernandez) have been married only a few hours and already want to kill each other. A hotel manager and a caterer (Patina Renea Miller and Jerry Dixon) meet cute and eventually break up messy. In between, all four—plus Jeb Brown and Mark Linn-Baker, as the bride’s two troublemaking exes—sing, dance, and crack jokes about Woodmere, maybe because of all the yuk mileage you can get by pronouncing it “Woodmeah.”

Shanley (a Pulitzer winner for Doubt) tries to weld the perceived innocence of the thirties musical to the self-aware cluelessness of early-21st-century coupling, perhaps as a way of showing that not all that much has changed. But what about everything that’s absent in this and so many other contemporary musicals, like wit and sophistication? Forced cleverness doesn’t count, so Shanley gets no extra points for writing lyrics that rhyme “between us,” “Venus,” “heinous,” and “penis,” even though those particular bits of writerly derring-do might work in a wittier and more buoyant show. The music, by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls), demands only the most noncommittal talk-singing, with a little belting thrown in for extra emphasis; the melodies drift into the ether before we have a chance to grab onto them. And the show’s meager scraps of dramatic tension (the bride finds out that she’s not divorced—from not just one man but two) are handily dispensed within the first act, leaving the whole second act for these lovers to wander around reflecting, tunelessly, on the futility of love.

Maybe they’re just depressed by their surroundings. At a certain point a production’s simplicity—spare set, modest costumes—only reinforces how threadbare the material is. Nothing says “desperation” like asking a performer to sing a half-cooked melody, packed with wearying punny lyrics, against a sparkly curtain. There’s no shame in keeping things simple, especially in our new era of austerity. And in that sense Shanley’s instincts, at least, are on target: This isn’t a bad time to be reworking the thirties musical for the modern age. But it’s just as true today as it was in the Depression that audiences like to leave the theater feeling as if they’ve just seen a spectacle—or even the illusion of a spectacle—and with a song or two in their pockets. The songs in Romantic Poetry are as elusive as the idea of love itself. They give us nothing to bank on. –S.Z.

By David Mamet.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Through February 22.

Romantic Poetry
By John Patrick Shanley. City Center.
Through December 14.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels