The egos have landed

Mamet's Hollywood satire is undermined by its testosterone-filled starring actors

Speed-the-Plow Old Vic, London SE1

The programme should have warned me. Its cover has Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum in white shirts, dinner jackets and shades, Spacey leaning back smoking a cigarette, Goldblum dabbing a cigar in the air. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Blues Brothers. This is an evening when two Hollywood swanks show us a good time although, in truth, a better time is had by them than us.

As in all David Mamet plays, the pleasure lies in the lethal cut of his dialogue. Sadly, here Goldblum and Spacey speak so fast and tread over so many of each other's lines that they are actually hard to hear. In compensation, the director, Matthew Warchus, emphasises the physicality of their characters so that no line is delivered without an accompanying piece of business.

Mamet favours the speak-the-words, don't-fall-over-the-furniture approach to acting, so who knows what he would think? Yet it is undeniably funny to watch Goldblum as Bobby Gould, just promoted to head his own Hollywood studio, so high on success that he dashes back and forth across his sun-blasted office looking for a wall to bounce off. Goldblum, improbably tall in skinny trousers, looks like a lamp post on a fairground ride.

Sharing Gould's joy is his old colleague, the producer Charlie Fox, portrayed by Spacey, who has his own uncoiled energy. He slithers across the stage as if on ice, rising to the occasional dangerous arabesque. Maybe the over-energetic choreography is meant to suggest an industry jet-propelled on cocaine. Certainly when the two end up fighting in the third act, it is no shock, because they've been wired from the start.

"Rich, are you kidding me? We're going to have to hire someone just to figure out the things we want to buy," says Gould in triumph. But figuring out what scripts to buy does not seem to be a problem. Fox has brought him a prison movie to which a Sylvester Stallone-wattage star is attached. It's a sure thing, until into this paradise intrudes a serpent in the shape of Art and a serious novel about how the world will end up nuked. Sent to Gould as a "courtesy read", the book has no chance of making it to the screen or even of being read. He farms it out to his temporary secretary, a curvaceous innocent called Karen, who agrees to discuss it with him over dinner. You can guess what happens. She loves Gould's courtesy book. He loves Karen's courtesy body. The next day when Fox comes in, he has committed himself to making it.

When it had its first run, in New York in 1988, this drama, if it was a vehicle for anyone, was probably a vehicle for Madonna, who played the secretary. I can imagine the youthful authority she gave a frankly underwritten part (Karen, unlike the men, does not even get a surname). At the Old Vic, Laura Michelle Kelly, a young yet experienced actress, cannot gain any purchase on her role, and the sexual tension between her and Goldblum in the middle act, the date, is zilch. As for the novel itself, it is hard to tell from what she reads from it whether it is meant to be great or as awful as it sounds. It becomes a McGuffin, a plot device of no inherent weight. By the third act, when mayhem has been loosed, you question what is really going on and why Fox explodes quite so personally at the news that Gould has slept with Karen. Possibly for reasons unwise to go into here, Spacey is disinclined to add any homoerotic subtext.

Speed-the-Plow is not a bad play, although I felt a little cheated that Mamet does not write the key scene, namely the moment when Karen succumbs to Gould and Gould succumbs to her opinion of the book. But the problem with this production is that Spacey and Goldblum pump it so full of testosterone that if Speed-the-Plow were an Olympic event, the officials would be calling for an inquiry. Their over-egging exposes it as minor Mamet. I left asking myself why Spacey, as the Old Vic's artistic director, thought it worth reviving 20 years on. The answer that occurred is that satires on Hollywood are exactly the thing to flatter and entice a big movie star such as Goldblum to Shakespeare's London and thus sell tickets. A play about cynicism and egotism falling prey to cynicism and egotism? How did that happen?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn