David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is a satire set in a jaded Hollywood where movies are made, not because they are good or bad, but because they are bankable. The play opens in the office of a newly promoted studio executive, Bobby Gould (played by Richard Schiff of The West Wing fame), who is giving an apocalyptic novel – The Bridge or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society – a ‘courtesy read’ at the request of his boss, Richard Ross. Charlie Fox (Nigel Lindsay), a struggling producer who has worked with Gould for years, interrupts with good news: he has a script but, more importantly, it comes with a big name actor attached. It’s a sure-fire hit, never mind if it sounds like crap.
Fox’s pitch is a prison buddy movie, steeped in sex, violence and (slightly unclear) ‘social’ issues. After much mutual backslapping, the pair decide to take the idea straight to Ross for his final, inevitable, green-light. They’re so sure the film will make their careers that they’re already mentally spending their piles of cash: ‘We’re going to have to hire someone to figure out the things we want to buy’. Before the meeting can take place Ross is called away and they’re shunted to 10am the next morning. Enter Karen (Lindsay Lohan) to jeopardise the whole project.
Karen is a temporary secretary pulled into the plot by a bet between the two male characters. Fox doesn’t think Gould can get her into bed because she ‘falls between two stools’, being neither a ‘floosy’ nor ambitious enough to sleep with her boss only to get ahead. Gould hopes she might just like him for himself but Fox scoffs that, in a job like Gould’s, no one just likes anyone: there is always an agenda. Their $500 bet throws more into hazard than either of them was willing to risk.
Karen is just what each man thinks she is and not much more: by turns a naïve and sincere champion of integrity in cynical Movie-land and an ambitious manipulator who uses sex to gain power over susceptible men. She is only complicated and mysterious in as far as she is a cipher for the more subtle power dynamics between the two men.
It is to Lohan’s credit that she almost maintains this ambiguity without seeming like a complete non-entity; she just about manages to play emptiness as mystery and hint at a complexity that isn’t in the script. The real drama is in the horse-trading ‘buddy’ plot between the two men. Karen is written as a spanner in the works rather than a fully rounded character.
The casting of this role does, however, have wider ramifications for the gender dynamics of the play, not least following on from Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey’s acclaimed sparring at the Old Vic in 2008. Karen is little more than the object of these men’s lust and loathing. The marketing of this production gives a vacuous and underwritten hole at the centre of Mamet’s play more emphasis than the character deserves or can sustain. There has been much talk about how Lohan is just about adequate in her first stage performance. But the role she plays has so little depth that a ‘great’ performance is hard to imagine, even from a far more experienced actor.
Lohan doesn’t drop the ball but then it is pitched to her very gently. Madonna was the first to play the role and it has the feel of a secondary part, written to suit an inexperienced actor. Karen has relatively few lines – the male characters take the bulk of the tricky, bantering ‘Mamet speak’ dialogue – and her relationships with Fox and Gould are comparatively straightforward. She didn’t forget her lines but then, let’s face it, that’s the least we should expect from a professional actor.
Both Schiff and Lindsay deliver compelling performances. Schiff plays Gould as a slightly weary figure, without the vim of a recently promoted – and presumably pretty driven – decision-maker in a cut-throat business. It seemed a legitimate, if unusual, interpretation of the role that made his susceptibility to Karen both sadder and more likely, and the denouement more emotionally rich. More importantly, it made the misogynistic dynamics of the script seem slightly more complex and less repellent than they actually are.
Lindsay plays Fox with a desperate energy that off-sets Schiff’s lower-key performance. Mamet’s dialogue is notoriously pacey and fragmented. It relies heavily on the rhythm of its delivery. When it was only Lindsay and Schiff on stage it more or less worked. Lohan clearly struggled and a lot of her back-and-forth lines – of which she had relatively few – missed their beat. Her longer monologue worked better, giving her space to get up a convincing momentum.
It is a heavy irony that this production (like the first, starring Madonna) plays exactly the same game that Fox plays with his prison movie, putting a bankable star at the heart of the project. A cynic might think Lohan was cast principally as press fodder and box office draw. Certainly it seems odd and misleading that the more minor character of the three is the only one on the poster. And it appears to be working: whatever the critics think, on the night I went there were banners from the balcony and a patchy but enthusiastic standing ovation. This production enacts the dilemma at the heart or its own plot and in doing so is either being very crass or (thinks it’s being) very clever. The dilemma it poses is whether anyone should care that it’s a compromise, just so long as it sells?
Speed-the-plow, Playhouse Theatre, London