In this play, the question of the worth of a commodity is made the center of the conflict. Far from being useless, worthless property, as in Glengarry Glen Ross, here the “product” is a film script more or less guaranteed to make money versus a very questionable project that has no real value but is valuable to the spirit of the men involved.
Bobby Gould, a newly promoted production executive, is visited by an old “friend and associate,” Charlie Fox. Gould has “a new deal” with the money man, Ross (offstage). In a power position, Gould is constantly “promoted” by other producers who want him to approve their film deals. He is wary of being “promoted,” but Fox, an old friend and business associate, brings him a perfect project—a name actor has agreed to “cross the street.” Fox does not “go through channels”—a metaphor for the disguises, the safeguards between people and their emotions—not because he trusts his friendship with Gould, but because he is sure that his film opportunity will appeal to Gould on a business level.
Money versus people is the theme, as Gould and Fox themselves agree: When the “deal” starts to slip away, what are the real values? The question of loyalty and friendship versus the world of business, as in Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, comes up again. “It’s only words unless they’re true,” says Fox. Another property, by an Eastern philosopher, has taken the fancy of Karen, a temporary secretary, who visits Gould and sleeps with him in exchange for consideration of the new project.
The audience must consider whether Gould was truly converted to the new book or was tricked into believing in the ideas of the book. The theme that concerns Mamet once again is the interface of business (by which he means cold, distrustful relationships with unwritten rules) and friendship (by which he means trust without boundaries). Two scripts compete for one “green light” from the head of the studio. One script, clearly a moneymaker, is trite and exploitive and imitative. The other script is a large idea from an Eastern author, purveying a notion that radiation was sent by God to change the world. Its value as box-office revenue is very questionable, but Karen’s explanation of it, coupled with her offer of sexual gratification, is too much for Gould, and he changes his mind in favor of the radiation book. When his friendship with Fox, a friendship bordering on “old boy” camaraderie, is threatened, Fox shows Gould that Karen was simply using him for her own ambitions.
When Gould sends Karen away and goes to the meeting with Fox, the audience realizes that Gould has abandoned his soul and his only chance for true greatness. On the other hand, the duplicity and confused nature of love is also in question: If Karen had been clearly the good influence, the play would have been melodramatic, but with Karen’s motives under question, the play becomes much more insightful and complex. This sense of possible betrayal, coupled with a swing in power from one person to another, is at the base of the play’s drama.
Karen is an unusual character for Mamet—an attractive woman who presents the idea of noble principles to an otherwise superficially insensitive businessman. Usually the women in Mamet’s plays are impediments to a man’s business, asking for personal commitment (as in The Woods) in place of the retreat of the emotions that Mamet sees as a masculine trait. Here, again, the woman is asking the man to be himself, to go against the rules of business (including the first rule of guarding himself from damage in friendship), to project himself outside the safe business deal into a film based on belief. Where Mamet stands on the question of real value is not immediately clear, as the radiation text in question is at once profound and nonsensical. As in all of his plays to date, Mamet stays neutral regarding the nature of truly principled action.
Speed-the-Plow opens in...
(The entire section is 1,922 words.)