As last hurrahs go, Andrew Upton’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is refreshingly unpretentious: brief, sharp, minor fun, excoriating Hollywood bro-culture but reveling in it really. After eight years at the helm of the Sydney Theatre Company, Upton last year handed the reins to the Chichester Festival’s Jonathan Church, whose short-lived appointment made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Now Upton has returned to steady the ship, bringing with him Rose Byrne, on stage in her hometown for the first time since 2001.
In a role originated by Madonna in 1988 and played by Elisabeth Moss on Broadway in 2008, Byrne is temp secretary Karen, manning the phones in the office of newly promoted studio production head Bobby Gould, played here by Damon Herriman, probably best known Stateside for his work on FX’s Justified. Bobby’s buddy Charlie Fox (Lachy Hulme) has good news. Screen star Doug Brown — the idea of that name on a marquee is one of Mamet’s slyer jokes — has attached himself to one of their scripts, a buddy movie set in a prison. Bobby has the power to greenlight films under $10 million; Charlie is angling for a co-producer credit. If Bobby can get the package approved in the next 24 hours, they’re in business.
Karen is a babe in the woods, but her affectless curiosity stays the men’s showbiz cynicism. “Is it a good movie?” she asks Bobby, who’s flummoxed by the question. Bobby asks Karen to cover a book, a “courtesy read” for the studio head written by some limp-wristed East Coast worthy titled The Bridge, or Radiation and the Halflife of Society. She loves it, of course, and sets out to convince Bobby to ditch the prison picture and use his greenlight power for good.
Going over ground Mamet also tilled in his 2000 feature State and Main, Speed the Plow is not his best, and its observations about Hollywood culture — commerce wins, relationships are transactional — are nothing earth-shattering. Byrne is this production’s poster girl, and she keeps it afloat. Her comic chops make the wide-eyed routine work, and she invests Karen with degrees of naiveté and calculation without shedding either, keeping you guessing even when Mamet’s script doesn’t.
David Fleischer’s design gestures to the 1980s with a light touch. Bobby’s office is empty, save a couple of buckets of paint and a pile of scripts; only the width of his ties gives the game away. Herriman is as chameleonic as ever, his terrier-like frame caving inwards in indecision with every second he spends in Karen’s company. Bobby might agree that everyone’s a whore in this racket, but he looks crestfallen when he works out he’s being used.
Upton manages to keep the pace cracking despite two unhurried transitions in which the curtain comes down and the house lights go out, but the second-act relocation to Bobby’s penthouse is worth it: Fleischer and lighting designer Nick Schlieper, both Upton regulars, economically evoke a pad straight out of Heat: a glass living room over a bluish cityscape. Byrne is in her element in this midsection, imbuing Karen with tenderness and passion and what seems like sincerity — although who knows in this town?
The culminating showdown between Charlie and Karen is where Hulme comes into his own. Best known for essaying Australian media mogul Kerry Packer on local TV, Hulme seethes politely, his rising fury only just held in check by a long habit of ass-kissing. A sweaty, potbellied bear of a man, Charlie’s desperation to salvage both his payday and his friendship sees him accuse Karen of sleeping with Bobby to get a greenlight. Her ready admission feels somewhat unlikely: Wouldn’t a real mistress of manipulation be more likely to deny, deny, deny?
Almost 30 years after it was written, the play’s disdain for its female character, standard for Mamet, feels somewhat dated, though perhaps not as dated as it should. Likewise his skewering of a studio race to the bottom. Upton’s wife, Cate Blanchett, made her STC debut straight out of drama school in a 1994 production of Mamet’s Oleanna, co-starring with Geoffrey Rush. Byrne is a less brittle proposition, and she refuses to play the hand that Mamet stacks against her.
The playwright’s attitude toward Hollywood feels less dismissive: aghast but almost admiringly so. Certainly he’s always admired ruthlessness. Mamet wrote Speed-the-Plow off the back of ‘80s successes like The Verdict and The Untouchables, but at this point his patter hasn’t been on the big screen since 2008’s Redbelt — how much more acrid might a sequel be now?
Upton’s productions have a habit of decamping to New York after their Down Under runs, and his adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov, titled The Present and directed by Brooklyn’s John Crowley, opens there in January, with Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in the lead roles. It’s quite possible this one won’t be far behind.
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
Cast: Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman, Lachy Hulme
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Andrew Upton
Set & costume designer: David Fleischer
Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Sound designer: David Gilfillan
Presented by the Sydney Theatre Company