Theater people have been bristling recently because everyone refers to "Speed-the-Plow," Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet's new play, as "the Madonna play." Well, let's face it. The drama of whether she can act runs neck and neck with the play.
When Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver are on stage, portraying two Hollywood hustlers, one of whom has suddenly achieved power, the audience is roaring with laughter because they're powerful actors and the piece - a facetious "morality play" about Hollywood - is savagely funny.
Then she comes on, and the audience is suddenly quiet. They're not in Mamet's play any more. They're in Madonna's. They're asking themselves: Can she act? Is this what she's supposed to be doing? They're nervous for her. The fact that they're not laughing tells you all you need to know.
The neutral impression she gives is useful to the play. She plays a temporary secretary who uses her body to influence the quasi-moguls' decisions. They want to produce garbage. ("That's what we're in business to do - make the things they made last year.") She champions a pompous nuclear radiation novel.
The temp is supposed to be a question mark. The lack of firmness in Madonna's performance adds ambiguity.
What's interesting about Madonna is that she misses the musicality of Mamet's writing. His lines have very definite rhythms. Even the pauses are as important to the overall sound and effect of the words as a measure of rest is in a symphony.
Delivering Mamet's pungent dialogue requires a special kind of energy. It's roughly like a pitcher learning to put a spin on the ball.
Part of the spin comes from the characters. Mantegna has a nervous cockiness as a recently promoted head of production. The jealous Silver has his own jumpy power. They're like a pair of old vaudevillians going through a routine they've done dozens of times, but with no less intensity, fascination or belief.
In order to make us believe she has equal power, Madonna has to have equal energy. She doesn't. Being vacant on the stage requires more effort than it does in real life.
Women tend to play subsidiary roles in Mamet's plays. In "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," he shows us men trying to be aggressive but generally emerging pathetic. "Speed-the-Plow" introduces a female playing the same game, coming closer to winning.
The men have a knockdown fight before the temp is put back in her place. She seems to represent something loftier. In fact, she doesn't. "She's out with Albert Schweitzer in the jungle?" Silver asks. "No, she's here." Masculine judgment triumphs ("You can't tell it to me in one sentence, they can't put it in TV Guide"), but the men themselves are beleaguered.
Elegantly designed, impeccably directed, "Speed-the-Plow" is Mamet's clearest, wittiest play. I bet it would be even funnier with an actress.
There is one wonderful line in David Mamet's play "Speed-the-Plow," which opened at the Royale Theater last night, that tells it all.
But I lie already - the play is crammed with wonderful, dazzling, brilliant lines like a plum pudding with fruit, like a gag-book with jokes.
The play - which in a sweetly uncommercial fashion worthy of Joseph Papp introduces the pop star Madonna to the Broadway audience - is one of those bitchily brave nibbling-the-hand-that-feeds-me plays about Hollywood that some Hollywood scriptwriters have reveled in since Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife." But, believe me, this makes Odets seem like a blunt instrument.
Bobby Gould (Joe Mantegna) has been made Production Head of a major studio. His best friend and dearest, frankest sycophant, Charlie Fox (Ron Silver), has just got the miraculous okay from a major motion picture megastar (a big megastar) on a script.
He has brought his hot property to his friend, who is overjoyed by such loyalty - he could have walked over to another studio with it - and after an orgy of congratulation, together they plan a future full of riches, the gorgeous fruits of selling out at the right price.
They fix a triumphant appointment with the studio's top honcho the following morning to get the formal green light on all the greenbacks due to come their way.
Into this happy nest of artistic depravity and male bonding, there enters a temporary secretary, Karen (Madonna), who is as seemingly honest as she is transparently naive.
Bobby has a highbrow novel by some East Coast sissy writer that the big boss wants given a "courtesy read." He adroitly persuades Karen to read it and, as he lusts after her, to bring a report round to his home later that night.
Karen not only reads the book, called "The Bridge" - all about "radiation and the end of the world" - but loves it, and convinces herself, and apparently Bobby, that it should be made into a great movie. As for Bobby, he has found, it seems, a vocation.
Now the transformation from Saul to Paul is a classic theme, but what if Paul stumbles on the road back from Damascus? Does it still work?
The more successful Mamet becomes, the more polish and wit his writing acquires, the more manipulative he gets; as both playwright and scriptwriter he is, amazingly, sinking upwards to where the money is.
Will Mamet cop out, or will Saul really become Paul? What do you guess happens? You are almost certainly right.
Revealingly, Mamet never gives art an even break against mammon. The novel he has suggested, "The Bridge," is not only ludicrously pompous in its theme, but the lengthy passages interminably read to us are neither satirically funny nor conceivably convincing.
But what the play has got are lines - incredible, excruciatingly clever, excoriatingly bitter and above all riotously funny lines. Which reminds me of that line I promised you at the beginning, which said everything needed saying about the play.
It is something Charlie belts out in rage and desperation. He is pleading with Bobby to hear something about the girl, and Bobby expresses doubt, as he doesn't want to hear badly of her.
Charlie ripostes back: "If it's not true - it's only words." What a line! It contains genius. It offers the one subliminal fact about truth, falsehood, life, art and, above all, literature.
And after Mamet has made all the deals with his literate conscience and his literary agent, I have a feeling that, at the rarefied level of artistic honesty, his play is not true. It is only words - but what a mad, rushing, tumultuous gift for words the man has.
He also has a god-given gift for the theater, its dialogs and its methods. He writes lines for actors to play in.
Gregory Mosher, his favored director, and the artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, which is presenting the play on Broadway, has staged "Speed-the-Plow" without putting a pause wrong.
Listen to the way Silver makes just the right pause and pick-up in the sentence: "You think about a concept all your life...wealth" - and you can learn almost all you need to know about the collaborative process possible between a playwright, an actor and a director.
As for the cast of three, it is two-thirds perfect and one-third hopeful. Madonna tries hard in a Judy Holliday role, but sounds more as if she were auditioning than acting, and the audition is scarcely for the big time. There is a genuine, reticent charm here, but it is not yet ready to light the lamps on Broadway.
However, Silver and Mantegna bound on the play like terriers fighting over a peculiarly juicy bone.
Silver, as rough as gunpowder and as corrupt as silk, is just tremendous as the upright Hollywood toady about to hit it big, and Mantegna is just as immaculately accurate as the middle management mogul full of unctuous philosophy, mean street-smarts and equivocation.
They act as if they were making the play up as they go along, even forcing the three-dollar-bill ending to sound like the million it should make.
Mamet here is so damned entertaining - I laughed and laughed - what right have I to suggest he could go an extra three or four miles? If he knows it himself, he knows it, and if he doesn't, it doesn't matter.
Hell hath no fury like a screenwriter scorned, and American culture is all the livelier for it. Out of the rage of embittered novelists and playwrights in studio backlots has come an enduring literature, nearly all of it practicing the same scorched-earth policy toward Hollywood that Nathanael West first apotheosized in ''The Day of the Locust.'' While the theater has made many contributions of its own to the genre in the six decades since Kaufman and Hart mocked the early talking-picture industry in ''Once in a Lifetime,'' David Mamet's new play, ''Speed-the-Plow,'' may be the most cynical and exciting yet.
What we have at the Royale is not merely another screenwriter's bitchy settling of scores. Even as Mr. Mamet savages the Hollywood he calls a ''sinkhole of slime and depravity,'' he pitilessly implicates the society whose own fantasies about power and money keep the dream factory in business. ''Speed-the-Plow'' refuses to hold out the sentimental hope that art might someday triumph over commerce. Mr. Mamet takes the darker view that show business titans know all too well whereof they speak when they claim to make ''the stories people need to see.''
By turns hilarious and chilling - and, under Gregory Mosher's exhilarated direction, wire-taut from start to finish - ''Speed-the-Plow'' is the culmination of this playwright's work to date. Bobby Gould (Joe Mantegna) and Charlie Fox (Ron Silver), the movie-industry sharpies at center stage, are tribal hustlers in the prize tradition of the penny-ante thieves of ''American Buffalo,'' the lowlife real-estate salesmen of ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' and the poker-playing conmen of Mr. Mamet's film ''House of Games.'' This time the scam is ''entertainment.'' Charlie, a producer, is asking Bobby, a newly anointed head of production, to get approval for a ''package'': a big star will do a prison melodrama sure to make a zillion, provided that within 24 hours the studio gives the project the green light.
No one, of course, actually cares what this commodity is. The movie's plot, outlined in buzz words, is a riotous morass of action- and message-picture cliches that finally must be boiled down to the single phrase needed to sell it to the studio chief: ''buddy film.'' But Mr. Mamet, like his moguls, is not concerned with the substance of the movie so much as the games that attend the making of the deal. As Charlie and Bobby, long-time pals who started out in the mail room together, fantasize about how much money they can make (''The operative concept is lots and lots''), they engage in a sub rosa power struggle - a warped, Pinteresque buddy movie of their own. The supplicant Charlie literally as well as figuratively kisses Bobby's behind to enlist his support with higherups at the other end of the phone. Though the men frequently and proudly label themselves whores, they are sentimental whores who boast of their brotherly loyalty and describe Hollywood as a ''people business'' even as they stab anyone handy in the back.
If ''Speed-the-Plow'' were only the story of these two men scheming to get a movie made, it would still be a worthwhile, funny evening. Exhaustively mined as the territory is, Mr. Mamet has come up with fresh Hollywood gags and newly minted Goldwynisms (''It's only words unless they're true''). His pungent, scatalogical dialogue skyrockets with the addition of such industry locutions as ''net'' and ''coverage.'' Yet ''Speed-the-Plow'' contains a third character and a second film project - forces that collide to push Mr. Mamet's drama and themes well beyond parochial show-biz satire.
The catalytic character is a temporary secretary named Karen (Madonna), a naive young woman who is so unused to thinking in ''a business fashion'' that she can hardly fetch coffee, let alone adopt the proper phone attitude required to secure a lunch reservation for her boss at a trendy industry restaurant. The play's second, much-discussed potential film property is ''The Bridge, or Radiation and the Halflife of Society,'' a book by an ''Eastern sissy writer'' that an agent has submitted to Bobby's boss. ''The Bridge'' is the sort of artsy tome anathema to Hollywood - an allegorical tale of apocalypse rife with allusions to grace, the fear of death and the decay of Western civilization. Bobby has promised to give the book ''a courtesy read'' before rejecting it, and he also wouldn't mind taking his temporary secretary to bed. To accomplish both missions as expeditiously as possible, he gives Karen the task of preparing a reader's report on ''The Bridge,'' with the hint that the assignment might advance her career to ''the big table.''
It would be unfair to divulge anything else that happens. Mr. Mamet had developed into a more inventive storyteller than most people working in the movies, and his new play is full of the unexpected twists that have distinguished ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' and ''House of Games'' from much of his earlier work. In ''Speed-the-Plow,'' the spiraling plot not only pays off in a violent catharsis reminiscent of ''American Buffalo,'' but also gives the drama the hallucinatory mood of ''The Water Engine,'' Mr. Mamet's spectral radio play about an idealistic inventor who is silenced and destroyed by nightmarish forces of industry during the 1930's.
As ''The Water Engine'' was haunted by the recital of a mysterious chain letter, so the frequently cited preachments by the anonymous author of ''The Bridge'' percolate elliptically through ''Speed-the-Plow.'' The more fun is poked at ''The Bridge'' and its lofty warnings about the end of the world, the more it seems that a religious vision of salvation may be presenting itself to one of the hardened moguls, prompting him to change the world and maybe even to make better movies. Or is God Himself just another exploitable concept - or con - in the greedy machinations of American commerce? Mr. Mamet certainly gives full sway to the consideration that religion might be the last refuge of whores.
Although her role is the smallest, Madonna is the axis on which the play turns - an enigma within an enigma, in the manner of the Lindsay Crouse heroine in ''House of Games.'' It's a relief to report that this rock star's performance is safely removed from her own Hollywood persona. Madonna serves Mr. Mamet's play much as she did the Susan Seidelman film ''Desperately Seeking Susan,'' with intelligent, scrupulously disciplined comic acting. She delivers the shocking transitions essential to the action and needs only more confidence to relax a bit and fully command her speaking voice.
The men could not be better. Mr. Silver gives the performance of his career as the producer who has waited too long for his big break and will now stop at nothing to keep it from eluding his grasp. While one expects this actor to capture Charlie's cigar-chomping vulgarity, Mr. Silver's frightening eruptions of snarling anger and crumpled demeanor in the face of defeat make what could be another Beverly Hills caricature into a figure of pathos. Just as brilliant is Mr. Mantegna, whose reptilian head of production is a distinct creation from his past Mamet lowlifes. The actor is very funny when he demonstrates Bobby's delight in his new decision-making authority by barking ''Decide! Decide! Decide!'' into a phone. But when unforeseen circumstances suddenly force this self-assured Machiavelli to declare ''I'm lost,'' Mr. Mantegna evinces just the ashen, glassy-eyed pallor needed to convey the vertigo-inducing moral void that Mr. Mamet has opened up before him and the audience.
''Speed-the-Plow,'' not so incidentally, cannot be opened up by the movies. A two-set, three-person play that leaves no room for expansion, it would probably make terrible cinema. Perhaps that's another part of Mr. Mamet's revenge on Hollywood - to torture the studios to death with a script that is this entertaining and yet so far out of their reach. In ''Speed-the-Plow,'' Mr. Mamet has created riveting theater by mastering the big picture that has nothing to do with making films.