The name evokes images of hard-swearing, fast-talking, testosterone-dripping, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing, scam-running, angry white men spiritually crippled by existential angst and taking it out on everybody they come into contact with, even – or especially – each other. There was an extended moment, lasting some thirty years, when Mamet was the popping, crackling heartbeat of the American theater. His plays were known for tight plots, scintillating dialogue with trademark staccato musicality, and scathing satirical wit.
But the world changed and Mamet didn’t. Or rather, he became even more Mamet than he was before. Something happened, something that had been hovering around the edges of the Mamet legend at least since the incendiary theatrical stacked deck called Oleanna burned its way across the American stage. In the 2000s, Mamet had a very public split with, as he called them, “Brain-Dead Liberals.” That tough-guy, cigar-chomping persona had curdled and hardened into a neo-con. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his scathing review of Mamet’s 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, Mamet became “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”
And when, in that book, Mamet apparently states that “Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker,” (italics mine), you begin to see just how unerring Hitchens’ assessment might be.
So what, if anything, does this prodigiously gifted and deliciously controversial playwright still have to say to 2018 America? Well, the new (old) theatre company Asylum Theatre sought to answer that very question with it’s production of Mamet’s popular and wickedly black comedy, Speed-the-Plow, which is continuing through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre.
Asylum Theatre is basically its founder, Portland actor Jason Maniccia. Maniccia, who is a lifelong Mamet fan, and it’s no surprise that Asylum’s first productions were of two other famous Mamet pieces, the one-acts Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. (Danny Bruno, who starred in Duck Variations those many years ago, is back as the avaricious Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow.) Then, through a confluence of real life happening and acting work coming more regularly, Maniccia let Asylum fall by the wayside.
After a few years of productivity, Maniccia went into years of semi-retirement: “I took a couple of years and – you know – got into gardening.” Gardening cleared his head enough to bring him back to his first love – the stage. “I’d been thinking about changes in my life,” he remembers, “in terms of not only what am I running away from but what am I running away to.”
Now was the time, he decided, to revive Asylum theatre and revisit the plays and playwrights he loved. “I wanted to have a small theatre,” Maniccia says, “where I could do major plays. The shit you read in college, the stuff that’s in the textbook, because nobody was doing that.”
Speed-the-Plow, for Maniccia, had been a source of constant fascination from the moment he first read it as a twenty-year-old acting student at Western Washington University. “When I first read the play,” Maniccia recalls, “I’m 19-20 years old and I came from a certain background and had a certain idea in my mind about art and entertainment and I had a certain interpretation of the play.” He laughs. “I was quite confident about it. My interpretation of the play now is a hundred and eighty degrees opposite of that.”
That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that student-Maniccia’s interpretation of the play was “wrong,” per se. “One of Mamet’s greatest accomplishments in the script is how much of a blank slate he leaves for the viewer. He tells you the story but he doesn’t tell you what the story means; he doesn’t tell you what to think of the story. He’s a little bit spare and a little bit spartan. So you have that opportunity to see what you’re going to see.”
In Speed-the-Plow, Maniccia says, Mamet is “giving us this really challenging ethical dilemma of this movie producer, Bobby Gould. ‘I have this guaranteed, money-making hit that my friend brought me’ and he gets presented this other evidently worthwhile-to-the-world project that’s not necessarily a guaranteed money-maker. That’s the conflict of the play.”
It’s not the only conflict. Mamet has always had a dubious reputation (at best) among feminists. Speed-the-Plow might be exhibit A. At one point, the two men make a bet on whether one of them can seduce the one woman in the piece, the secretary who brought the producer, Bobby Gould, the “worthwhile-to-the-world project.” For the rest, in the #metoo era, a play that has a movie producer wielding power over a younger woman, and the ensuing struggle over clout, money and yes, sex, that ensues – well, suffice to say that buttons will be pushed and questions will be asked. They will be fair questions.
But although they may be worthwhile questions, those aren’t the questions that drive the play for Maniccia. “I have to admit to a little bit of ignorance going into Speed-the-Plow,” he says, “just because I’ve been reading the play so long that I didn’t really stop to think about what the play is today, I just thought about what the play has always been to me. And of course, once we started into it, people started saying, ‘Well, listen, you got this story of this Hollywood movie producer, you’ve got this woman that shows up, there’s this thing that happens between the two of them — hello!’ People are going to walk in with a certain idea about women working in a traditionally male power structure.”
In Maniccia’s mind, that problem, that perception of Mamet’s political self and his work, is not the engine of the play. “We didn’t really have that long of a conversation about it because ultimately the story for me and the story for Don (Alder, the director) and the story for everybody in the cast is not that story. It wasn’t Harvey Weinstein’s story. Mamet didn’t write it for that. Mamet’s ‘A’ story is really about the toxicity of capitalism and the compromises that arise from that level of greed, the competition that arises, and certainly, sexual politics plays a role in that but that ‘A’ story is the commerce-vs.-art battle. Our feeling was that audiences are going to come in with what they’re going to come in with, so if we give them the story as we see it, the story that we want to tell. They can come in and see what they want to see.”
For Maniccia, part of the antidote is a sensitive and charismatic actress to play the role. “We didn’t know who Karen was. We drew eight or ten names of people we wanted to talk to or people we wanted to look at, and she was a mystery. We have to believe when she comes in that she’s a newcomer; that she’s naive about the working of the business. We have to believe her conviction and her courage about the book. And Brianna (Ratterman, who recently was quite wonderful in Shaking the Tree’s __ the wolf), I’m just astonished every day. She brings humor and light and courage to Karen that are just fascinating.”
And Danny Bruno, who plays Charlie Fox, seems to have been genetically designed to do Mamet. But the real coup for Maniccia was to bring in a director who not only knows Mamet’s work, but is good at it: Don Alder. About 15 years ago Alder directed and starred in Mamet’s seminal work, Glengarry Glen Ross, that was one of the truly extraordinary productions of that season. “He hears the voice,” Maniccia says of Alder. “A lot of people misunderstand how to do that clipped dialogue. They misunderstand the humor. Don knows the language, he knows the tone, he knows the tempo.”
Having a director that attuned to the music of Mamet’s dialogue was an imperative for the production to succeed. Because like Shakespeare, like August Wilson, like Sam Shepard, not just anybody can walk in and do a David Mamet play. The way these writers put the words together takes a specific creative sensibility, an artistic philosophy. There’s doing a play. And then there’s doing a Mamet play.
“As actors we’re taught from our very first days we’re given dialogue,” says Maniccia, becoming more animated – “that if you have a line that’s interrupted, there’s an ellipses and you’re stopping mid-sentence, if the other person that talks next, you gotta improvise. Keep talking so that there’s not this dead air because then the audience will know somebody forgot their line. This is completely verboten in Mamet. It’s so carefully constructed that you a) cannot just improvise beyond the end of your line – if the person doesn’t interrupt you, you gotta leave dead air. You’re better off. And, b) you can’t overlap one another. He very carefully writes in where he wants you to overlap and on what word. I kid you not. When you hear that clipped, direct style, it’s supporting the stylistic writing. We think of his dialogue as naturalistic. It’s not. It’s stylized and poetic and if delivered in this staccato way it creates this illusion of dialogue. It’s terribly challenging and terribly rewarding.”
This is why, in Maniccia’s mind, the possibly problematic politics of Mamet take a back seat to Mamet the artist. When he talks about the work, the words on the page, the script, the plot, the play, they are all a living thing; they’re happening right now, even after the show has opened. Of course, this is the magic of theater. But listening to Maniccia, it goes even deeper than that. There’s a tremendous amount of respect, certainly, but also passion and delight. He’s an artist in love with an artist. And if you’re in love with something, there’s no turning your back on it.
Related to the war around sexual politics raging across the nation today is the question of whether you can separate the work of the artist from who he – or she – is as a person. For Maniccia, there’s no question. “If the playwright who wrote this play that I love, that I believe in, appears on some talk show spouting some political ideology that I don’t agree with,” he asserts, “that compartmentalizes for me. I don’t have a problem with that.”
For Maniccia the art is in the plot, the scathing humor, the music of the way the words are put together. “I would challenge people, if they have exceptions to David Mamet’s work, to come and see Speed-the-Plow. I won’t bear the burden of proof. You come to me, come see the show, and tell me what you think. I don’t present myself as a political commentator. I present myself as a storyteller, and storytelling can certainly make commentary about society. But I’m not out there to make a political statement. I want to tell a story. That’s what’s so delightful about people seeing Speed-the-Plow and having all these different reactions. You, please, think whatever you want to think about it. That’s my gift. That’s the best we can do for you.”
For Maniccia, part of Asylum Theatre’s mission is seeking that intersection between art and commerce: how to make something that does make you think, and make a buck while you’re doing it. This is a question that certainly concerned Mamet, and is smack at the center of Speed-the-Plow. “I think the two can come together,” says Maniccia. “As a theater artist, that’s what I want to do. As a theater patron, that’s what I want to see. And that’s what Speed-the-Plow has been saying to me for the last twenty years.”
Asylum Theatre’s Speed-the-Plow continues through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.