'Bitter Wheat': Theater Review

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan
John Malkovich in 'Bitter Wheat'
Soggy oats.
9/14/2019

John Malkovich plays a thinly veiled incarnation of Harvey Weinstein in David Mamet's farce about sexual-harrassment culture, mixing scabrous invective with dramatic schadenfreude.

The good news is that John Malkovich's dead-eyed clowning in a fat suit in Bitter Wheat at London's Garrick Theatre — at one point struggling to rise from a prone position like a beached orca — is a hoot. But despite all the fun to be had from the star's turn as a monstrous Harvey Weinstein-ian movie mogul — for example, intoning solemnly as he threatens to throw himself out of a window to "tell my children their mother is a c—" — David Mamet's latest effort, which the playwright has also directed, is just as diagrammatic, glib and insincere as any over-massaged middlebrow Miramax film from the 1990s.

Sure, go ahead, kick the creep in the nuts while he's down. But let's not pretend this has anything particularly insightful to say about the post-#MeToo era. It's not even as interesting or as nuanced a take on gender dynamics as Mamet's 1988 play, Speed-the-Plow, or even his 1992 work, Oleanna, neither of which set especially high bars.

In London, where audiences are more forgiving, or at least less likely to get their knickers in a twist over the c-word, self-hating Jews and seeing misogyny's funny side, Bitter Wheat's mix of scabrous invective and dramatic schadenfreude will probably continue to go down as well as it did on press night. The ovation wasn't standing, but the laughs were hearty enough to augur a well-selling run going forward. 

In New York, Weinstein's hometown, where the hurt may be closer to home and sensibilities are generally more easily offended, this won't play as well, and already early reviews from American publications of preview performances have been largely negative. You can understand why. It's not that it’s “too soon” to be making a farce out of sexual-harassment culture, it's that it's done here with so little subtlety and, in the most ill-considered maneuver — or perhaps more to the point, not considered at all — barely the slightest interest in what the female characters think or feel about the protagonist's abusive habits.

Doon Mackichan and Ioanna Kimboo both do the best they can with what they have to work with, but ultimately they're both little more than ciphers with a few zingers to dispense and strictly narrative functions to fulfil.

Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), ostensibly an indictment of the corrosive effects of capitalism, ended up having its dialogue memorized and recited lovingly by MBA grads, like Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch for bro-culture dudes. This work is unlikely to endure as well, but nevertheless it's obvious the author gets what makes independent producer, awards glutton, Manhattan macher and putz extraordinaire Barney Fein (Malkovich) tick, just like he understood the psychology of Glengarry's shark-toothed hustlers more than that of their victims. A baby boomer to the end, Mamet has sympathy for the devils above all. 

First met in his office, dispensing orders to his minions such as right-hand woman Sondra (Mackichan) and dopey intern (but son of prominent critic) Roberto (Alexander Arnold) about whom to bribe and what was bought as a gift for his aging mother's birthday, Barney dispenses insults and sarcasm in a flat, affectless clip.

Skipping with ADHD-like instantaneity from topic to topic, and keeping up those rat-a-tat rhythms Mamet likes so much, Barney plots with Sondra about getting an awards body of international critics to vote his way (what organization could that possibly be a reference to?) on a prize for a recent film he made. It seems the scribe from Togo is a no-go vote-wise unless Barney can set up a date with rising starlet Yung Kim Li (Kimbook), an actor of Korean extraction but who actually grew up in Kent, in the U.K.

Having arranged the assignation, Barney decides to keep the beauty for himself and telegraphs to Sondra and Roberto to instigate what appears to be a well-rehearsed series of feints and decoys in order to facilitate his bedding of Yung Kim.

The strategy is highly reminiscent of the well-reported cajoling, begging and eventual bullying, right down to the back rub requests, that Weinstein infamously deployed on his victims, although Mamet, oddly enough, stops well short of having Barney use force, perhaps to retain a modicum of sympathy for his antihero. Similarly, he has the character deliver a number of rambling, sometimes almost incoherent soliloquies of self-hate wherein Barney despairs of his girth, his Jewishness (calling himself a “kike” repeatedly), his general repulsiveness.  

Malkovich manages to measure out the performance so as to let this crack-up have some modicum of piteousness, but by the over-escalated second act there’s not much that can be saved. Mamet piles on the ironies like Jenga blocks, culminating with an offscreen character being killed by an undocumented immigrant as if just to humiliate Fein’s Democrat Party-supporting liberalism and politically correct positions, ones we’re to infer he only feigned to support because it played well with the press. The targets are soft as the padding inside Malkovich’s absurdly baggy black suit.  

It’s all a bit of a shame that this is one of the first major fictions to take on the Weinstein legacy when the raw material offers opportunities for more insightful observations. If Mamet were a different kind of playwright, for instance, this could be a chance to look through the eyes of those compromised by complicity, such as Sondra, who might be a stand-in for all the female employees who knew what was going on but looked away.

A real-life example is Kathy Declesis, at one time an assistant to Bob Weinstein, who eloquently and with warmth discusses her feelings of guilt in Ursula MacFarlane’s recent documentary Untouchable. Now there’s a story that would make an interesting play.

Venue: Garrick Theatre, London
Cast: John Malkovich, Doon Mackichan, Ioanna Kimbook, Alexander Arnold, Teddy Kempner, Matthew Pidgeon, Zephryn Taitte
Director-playwright: David Mamet
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Steve Traxler, Smith & Brant Theatricals, John Frost/Suzanne Jones, Scott Landis, Salman Al-Rashid, Caiola Productions, Greenleaf Productions, Dominick LaRuffa Jr., Latitude Link, Gavin Kalin Productions, Eric Falkenstein, GFour Productions, Ken Greiner, Carl Moellenberg, Jacob Soroken Porter