We’re soon to gather to hear a play, to issue forth a charge, to see new designs and welcome a brand new cast to our theater as our 2007-07 mainstage season officially begins with David Mamet’s SPEED-THE-PLOW. We’ll be sharing guest blog postings from our two superb visiting artists, Peter Birkenhead and Danton Stone. At the top of rehearsals today, after introducing wonder-director Jerry Whiddon, co-star Meghan Grady and the rest of our great design team, I’ll be talking about some of the special relationships that have been sown here over the years and how Peter and Danton have wound up here in DC for this very special revival.
But first, here’s a bit about why we’re doing SPEED-THE-PLOW. For me, it’s a little bit like producing a new Springsteen concert (in other words, a no brainer; a labor of love, an orgy of testosterone, and an opportunity to reconnect with something fine and vintage and powerful). It’s about going back to something you’ve loved and lavishing on it all the new energy you can muster to pay respect and generate new joy, new light, new meaning. Mamet and Bruce. A very influential kind of art.
Anyway, here’s a full unedited version of the essay that’s appearing in this month’s DCJCC Center in the City newsletter about our production. With much more new language to come, including reports from the first day of rehearsal from a whole squadron of bloggers.
We begin the new season in earnest this month with an old friend and a favorite comedy. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet has been keeping us company in the American theater since he burst onto the scene thirty years ago and he’s been casting his influence, redefining the art of dialogue and subject matter all the while. Now when we say “old friend,” we’re speaking figuratively, more or less. But the feeling is real; that Mamet’s been there for us year in year out, growing older and better, deepening his body of work as we continue to marvel at the evolution of the man and his industry. The ubiquity of Mamet’s work has wrought a patina of familiarity; we all feel we know something about this theatrical Hemmingway; this fire-plug intellectual; this American-Jewish Damon Runyon with the alleged sewer mouth who, in fact, speaks more in sermons than he does in vulgarities and who moves back and forth, and with astonishing productivity, from the silver screen to the printed page to the nation’s leading theatrical stages.
In the case of this artistic director, personalizing Mamet’s primacy is not just professional; it’s geographic. Mamet grew up on the South Side of Chicago, at 6970 S. Euclid and I grew up a block away, at 6840 S. Euclid. But by the time my family moved to Euclid from Coles Avenue in 1965, Mamet and his family had moved to the Southern suburb of Flossmoor. Still, Mamet took the same Illinois Central Railroad that I took to get downtown. He pined for entry into the same South Shore Country Club; a restricted golf course, turning away both Blacks and Jews, which ironically lay just a block from the orthodox Jewish Day School, Akiba, where I attended 6th through 8th grade once it merged with the more conservative Solomon Schechter Day School, the resident Jewish elementary school of Congregation Rodfei Zedek, my temple in Hyde Park which, incidentally, was Mamet’s shul as well. Mamet memorialized Rodfei Zedek in his short play, The Disappearance of the Jews which later became part one of a trilogy called The Old Neighborhood, which, as luck would have it, failed to thrive on Broadway in 1998 but a year later, became Theater J’s first breakout hit earning, at long last, a rave review from Washington Post chief critic Lloyd Rose, effectively putting our little theater on the map.
The trilogy followed the leave-taking and bittersweet homecoming of Mamet alter-ego, Bobby Gould, a Jewish man-child from Chicago who figures in a number of other Mamet works including the eponymous Bobby Gould in Hell, the film Homicide, and the comedy which officially opens our new mainstage season, Speed-The-Plow.
The Bobby Gould of this 1988 razor-sharp comedy is a Midwestern hustler who’s landed in Hollywood and we catch him, at play’s outset, having just moved into a shiny new office, drowning “in coverage” and the trappings of power. Old School attributes of loyalty, pluck, moxie and a great big Second City Chip-on-the-Shoulder are all very much in evidence as Bobby Gould cavorts with his side-kick, much as he did in the earlier Disappearance of the Jews; a buddy with whom he waxes existential, nostalgic, and of course, profane.
Why return to this vicious little chestnut? After all, we’ve been producing nothing but new plays for what feels like the past hundred years (rather, make that two; in fact, seven out of the past eight openings at Theater J have been world premieres. Enough already!) Speed-the-Plow is predicated on the rather cynical supposition that audiences and producers don’t really want the new; they want what was successful last year. It’s important to acknowledge that voice within us, both as artists and audiences; that we’re at war with our desires to pursue more tried-and-true, success-proven fare with our lingering impulse to blaze a trail.
And even more to the point, when we ask, “why produce this?” There’s an easy answer: Because we love it. We (and we’re speaking royally) love the craft of it; the music; the invective; the gleeful ferocity of all that pent-up frustration. And we love that off-stage “East Coast Sissy Writer” who’s written the un-filmable novel that represents something of our rarefied, not-for-profit art world sensibility. Mamet lays waste to the fragile and weak-kneed only to confer on it a new integrity as surprise heroine, Karen, the temporary secretary, discovers in the East Coast Sissy Writer something prophetic about our contemporary condition. Certainly she hits the bull’s eye in naming Bobby Gould’s rootless miasma, adrift in a valueless, idolatry-soaked Hollywood.
In short, we’ve picked this play not because it has something poisonous to say about Hollywood. Rather, it’s got something bitterly incisive to say about us. We have become as consumed as Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox with the lure of box office lucre. We’ve been made to be as anxious about the bottom line as our Tinsel Town brethren. The remarkable aspect of this play, twenty years after its creation, is we see ourselves in these Chicago pals now more than ever. As they’re corrupted by capital, so are we. As they await redemption (of one form or another), so too do we. We’re all a night away from a total transformation and we can all equally snap back to form when rubber hits the road or, to engage in Mametspeak, shit hits the fan. Mamet’s Hollywood feels a whole lot less remote than it did a generation ago. Join us for a wonderfully vicious, revealing evening of theater.
And get set for an entire of season of equally stimulating theatrical fare!