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Mamet Speak:  Greed and Power

Sept. 7's New York Times includes a preview of the new New York theatre season, including an article by David Mamet centered around the revival of his SPEED-THE-PLOW, starring, among others, Jeremy Piven of HBO's Entourage, playing a character perilously close to his agent character on Entourage.


I was lucky enough to see the original New York production, with Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver, and most famously, Madonna. I thought Madonna did a pretty good job, though I thought she was wardrobed and madeup all wrong. Her character was a temp secretary to a Hollywood producer who was so tempting the producer took her home to seduce her on a bet. That she turns out to have her own pet Hollywood project, and the will to turn power tables back on the producer was part of the intrigue of the script. Someone (I'm guessing Madonna) thought that for her Broadway stage debut she should look like a Yale acting grad (with short brown hair and unflattering business attire) rather than what the role suggested to me, a typical Hollywood bombshell who looked like, well, Madonna.

Despite that, I enjoyed the play, especially with Mantegna and Silver firing the best of Mamet back and forth. One of my favorite lines: SILVER: (producer and former partner to new production head Mantegna): It's lonely at the top, ain't it? MANTEGNA: Yeah, but it's not crowded.

I did witness one unforgettable stage moment in the performance I saw. After Mantegna has lured Madonna to his Hollywood Hills home, they're sitting across from each, with a hardwood floor in between. During their intimate dialogue, a button popped off Madonna's sweater, and bounced noisily across the floor. Madonna just looked open-mouthed at it – I don't think this type of bump had ever happened to her in her brief stage career. Mantegna looked at her, looked at the button, bent over, picked it up, put it in his pocket, then continued on with the scene.

Mamet's NYTimes article bounces around his own Hollywood history, from being a neophyte who wrote SPEED-THE-PLOW and took occasional meetings there with little experience to back him up, to being a resident who considers himself a card-carrying member of the industry. He makes some intriguing points about the relationship between High Art and the crass commercialism of the film business (and he painstakingly points out, it is a business.)

But one line he wrote really struck me. In reference to his preference in dealing with Commerce (Tool of Greed) vs. Public Benevolence (Tool of the State), he writes: “There is a limit on greed. There is no limit on the hunger for power.” That statement crystallized some thoughts I've had about our local theatre scene. Since the onset of the Kevin Kline Awards, the proliferation of new theatre groups, and then the Land Rush for new theatre space, and all the jostling for prominence and publicity that has resulted, I feel our theatres have been caught up, maybe unconsciously, in massive and embarrassing power struggles.

This has manifested itself in different ways, but without naming names (you might be able to guess these), following are some examples I've noticed and/or witnessed:

Wholesale Auditions: Several groups use their audition callbacks to try to illustrate their influence over the theatre community. I was called back by a director, who'd recently seen me perform for a specific role. I read the script, thought I was right for it, prepared and went to the callback. There were no less than 35 guys my age there. The group used an excuse about equity/non-equity casting requirements, but it looked, simply, like a director who had no clue what he was doing, and a group who was thrilled to show how many actors it could attract to is auditions. Several groups have fallen into this trap. It must feel good to them, but it is just a waste of a lot of people's time.

Political Posturing: I don't know what Broadway flack (maybe it was a flack in the ancient Greek theatre) who said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” but they were right. I've never been comfortable with theatre groups who try to preach. Especially when they grandstand a season concerning politics and power, and then solicit funding from huge, questionably ethical financial institutions, or hold fundraisers for wealthy patrons. It makes their desperate rants on stage seem hypocritical, or juvenile at best. But politics might seem a sexy selling point in this day and age, and it's spawned a number of upcoming shows that promise to vie for Most Deadly Boring Production at the next Kevins.

The Death of Humanism: You would think that arts groups might begin their work with a kindly concern for their fellow beings. But Mamet's quote above defines reality. When there is little money to be shared (as in a non-profit theatre group), the only tender to barter is power. And it's been wielded unmercifully in our theatre community in the last few years: ( I'm citing reliable tales and first-hand experiences of) actors, for no reason other than apparent jealousy from others in the cast, being ostracized during rehearsal/production processes and, in a show of pique and power, mistreated by directors; actors who've devoted time and talent to companies who then jockeyed them around with on-again, off-again auditioning and casting; companies who use actors and directors, then forget they exist, including forgetting to support their future work, or make them grind through auditions without casting even while operating under the guise of an “actors” theatre. These might seem petty, but most don't involve me, and they dismay me as much as if they'd happened to me.

Somehow, Some way, Someday, we have to get back to a semblance of a theatre community based on mutual support and celebration, not on greed for more and more power. (I've blamed much of the ugliness I've seen in the past decade or so, in the nation, business and even our theatre community, on the current Republican administration. I think they've spread a blank check that it's ok to do anything, to treat people any way you want.) Hopefully that's coming to an end. Hopefully there'll be a reckoning for some, a readjustment for others.

Hopefully we'll all survive this current (economic, artistic, human) crisis.



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Revised: October, 2007
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