Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

When Speed-the-Plow was first produced on Broadway in 1988, the casting of Madonna in the role of Karen was debated in the press more than the merits of the play itself. Many critics found the play up to Mamet’s high standards. William A. Henry III, reviewing the play in Time,...

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When Speed-the-Plow was first produced on Broadway in 1988, the casting of Madonna in the role of Karen was debated in the press more than the merits of the play itself. Many critics found the play up to Mamet’s high standards. William A. Henry III, reviewing the play in Time, wrote, ‘‘Of all American playwrights, Mamet, 40, remains the shrewdest observer of the evil that men do unto each other in the name of buddyhood.’’ Not all critics were impressed, however. In New York, John Simon stated: ‘‘The plot is minimal, barely sufficient to poke fun at Hollywood and show some derision for human nature.’’ Simon also added, ‘‘And when you reduce it to its essentials, it is really only variations on a basic bitter joke.’’

Mamet’s use of language is often singled out for praise, and Speed-the-Plow is no exception. Robert Brustein in the New Republic argued, ‘‘His ear for language has never been more certain or more subtle, but what distinguishes him from other playwrights with a natural control of the American idiom (Paddy Chayefsky, for example) is the economical way he can advance his plot, develop his characters, and tell his jokes without departing from, or announcing, his strong social-moral purpose.’’ Newsweek’s Jack Kroll added, ‘‘there’s hardly a line in it that isn’t somehow insanely funny or scarily insane.’’

Many critics compared Speed-the-Plow to other male-oriented business plays written by Mamet, including 1984’s Glengarry Glen Ross and 1975’s American Buffalo. Speed-the-Plow was often considered the inferior of the three. Brustein paid a back-handed compliment when he wrote, ‘‘Speedthe- Plow is the deftest and funniest of Mamet’s works, and the airiest too, since the characters are playing for relatively low stakes. In American Buffalo, Edmond, and Glengarry Glen Ross, men are fighting for their very existence. In Speed-the-Plow they are skirmishing over movie deals and percentages of the gross.’’ Moira Hudson in the Nation agreed, saying ‘‘Speed-the-Plow says nothing about Hollywood that hasn’t already been said many times before, but Mamet manages through his language and timing to breathe life into old cliches. Glengarry Glen Ross a few seasons back was better.’’

Despite flaws, critics generally agree that Mamet writes challenging texts for actors. The Nation’s Hudson claimed, ‘‘Mamet is an actor’s playwright, creating a language which is less simply overheard and recorded whole-cloth then boiled down, crafted and reassembled to create an intense, hyperrealistic theatrical experience.’’ Nearly every critic found the original Broadway production performances of Joe Mantegna as Bobby Gould and Ron Silver as Charlie Fox flawless. Simon in New York said that the actors ‘‘play off each other dizzingly and dazzingly as they flesh out—or, rather, sound out— the potential of the script, which depends almost indecently on the skill of its interpreters.’’

More controversial was the role of Karen and the woman who played her in that original production, the popstar Madonna. Many critics debated if the character of Karen was well-written to begin with. Hudson stated in the Nation that ‘‘Madonna’s line readings are less deft than Mantegna’s (or Silver’s). . . . Still, she isn’t all bad—or if she is, it’s hard to tell: The part she’s been given is by far the least convincing of the three. . . . It is difficult to believe that someone as naive as Karen would actually be working in the movie business, and its just as difficult to believe someone like Bobby would be so easily swayed by her, despite her undeniable attractions.’’

Some critics thought Madonna’s performance had merit. Time’s Henry wrote: ‘‘Madonna’s awkward, indecisive characterization seems calculated to . . . sustain suspense by keeping the audience from reaching conclusions. Thus the question ‘Can she act?’ cannot be answered. The shrewdness in her performance is clear, but so, alas, is her thinking process: she lacks ease and naturalness.’’ Kroll in Newsweek added, ‘‘She doesn’t yet have the vocal horsepower, the sparks, and cylinders to drive Mamet’s syncopated dialogue. But she has the seductive ambiguity that makes Karen the play’s catalytic force. . . . Who better than Madonna— Virgin, Material Girl—to give embodiment to the conundrum at the heart of David Mamet’s scathingly comic play?’’

Other critics were much less kind. The New Republic’s Brustein acknowledged Madonna’s importance as a pop star, but wrote, ‘‘Her performance is becomingly unshowy, but her modesty subdues her. . . . [She] gives a new dimension to the meaning of the word ‘flat’.’’ He concluded, ‘‘Her celebrity was bound to attract the wrong kind of attention to the play.’’ John Simon in New York argued that ‘‘she is more of a temporary hindrance whenever she is on.’’

In September 1988, when the entire original cast left the production, several critics found the new cast, which included a professional actress in the role of Karen, inferior in their interpretation of the play. Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote, ‘‘the deep, shudder-inducing chill of the original production is gone.’’ Rich went on to comment on Felicity Huffman, who took over the role of Karen. He wrote, ‘‘Mrs. Huffman’s skillful performance is in most details similar to Madonna’s . . . yet less effective. . . . Madonna’s awkardness and, yes, star presence, added essential elements of mystery and eroticism to a character who doesn’t reveal her true, shocking hand (and power over powerful men) until late in the play.’’ Simon, who had earlier dismissed Madonna’s performance, said, ‘‘though each of the trio is good, and Felicity Huffman surely better than Madonna, the work suffers.’’

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