Hammerheads: David Mamet's Money Plays
Contemporary playwrights seldom become household names in the United States. Yet in the very week in December that the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the country's playgoing audiences had declined from 13.5 percent of the adult population to 9.4 percent since 1992, pundits across the political spectrum were hammering home a point by invoking a dramatist. They were comparing the Senate seat-peddling Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, to a character penned by David Mamet.
Even people who'd never seen one of Mamet's plays could be expected to get the joke. The crew-cut, tough-talking author is America's most recognizable living playwright. Ever since Teach, the bullying braggadocio in American Buffalo (1975), stormed in from the wings, cursing like a trochaic trucker--"fuckin' Ruthie, fuckin' Ruthie, fuckin' Ruthie"--Mamet has been known as the dramatic poet of the potty mouth.
But it wasn't just Blagojevich's "fuck"-splattered bluster that brought the dramatist to so many commentators' minds. Like the governor, Mamet's best-known characters scheme and scrap and try to game the system, all the while spewing out gusts of hard-won entitlement. Whether the lowlifes of American Buffalo, the sleazy real estate hawkers of Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) or the slick Hollywood hustlers of Speed-the-Plow (1988), Mamet's men are conning for their lives. Not only does it never occur to them that there might be something wrong with stealing, lying or manipulating but they also display their pursuit of lucre as the patriotic flag of manhood and nation. "You know what is free enterprise," Teach explains to his friend in American Buffalo. "The freedom...Of the Individual...To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit.... In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit....The country's founded on this, Don." That Teach and Don are talking about burgling a rich guy's collection of rare coins doesn't strike them as overstepping the bounds of an "honest" course. In Mamet's money plays, American capitalism is a polluted but life-sustaining sea where even bottom feeders can act like sharks. And everybody wants to be a hammerhead.
The timing couldn't have seemed more perfect for this season's Broadway revivals of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. Beyond Blagojevich, the current gallery of scoundrels, scam artists and malfeasants who have crashed the economy after their long speculative joy ride might also have walked right out of Mamet's scripts. I expected to enjoy watching the gladiatorial verbal contests between men whose no-holds-barred ethos had finally been discredited. I didn't. Unlike Glengarry Glen Ross, which was revived in 2005 with an excellent production featuring Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber, the revivals of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow generated about as much fizz as the Wall Street happy hour on the day Lehman Brothers went belly up.
The plays have similar structures: two men with different perspectives hatch a plan that a third person interrupts, threatening the success of the scheme and testing the bonds of the men's friendship. A climactic violent outburst brings both plays to their close--resolving Speed-the-Plow (a comedy) and leaving American Buffalo in an uncertain calm (a would-be tragedy). In American Buffalo, Don, believing he's been swindled by a customer who bought a rare nickel from him, plots a retributive burglary--first with Bob, a young ex-junkie whom Don has taken under his wing, and then with Teach, who convinces Don that he'd be a more reliable partner than Bob. They botch the heist before it gets off the ground. Speed-the-Plow pits a movie producer, Charlie Fox, against a female office temp for the commercial soul of Charlie's best buddy, the newly promoted studio exec Bobby Gould. The men are about to take a sure blockbuster of a prison movie with a hot star to their higher-up for "greenlighting" when a wager over whether Bobby can get the secretary into bed gives her a night to champion a manuscript Bobby has asked her to read--a pompous tract about the perils of radiation.
In both plays the action is the talking, the patter of the pitch--desperate, insistent speech that seeks to persuade, justify and dominate. Critics who have lauded Mamet for verbal vérité are mistaken; the frequent self-interruptions, syntactical burps and constant interjections that insist "I'm telling you" or "That is what I'm saying" point to the lyrical artifice--and the thematic importance--of Mametspeak.
American Buffalo puts the lingo of entrepreneurship in the mouths of petty crooks, suggesting business is theft by other means. "I don't fuck with my business associates," says Teach as he and Don prepare for the burglary. "I am a businessman, I am here to do business, I am here to face facts." Speed-the-Plow makes Hollywood vulgarities the text of a profane oratorio: "You can shove good taste up your ass and fart 'The Carnival of Venice.' Good taste will not hack it," says Gould. Performances famously require actors to skate gracefully on the musical surface of the text and to take daring twists and jumps. The three actors in American Buffalo--Cedric the Entertainer, John Leguizamo and Haley Joel Osment--lacked dexterity and sank the play with their sluggishness. The production closed six days after it opened.
Speed-the-Plow, though a lesser play, fares better, thanks especially to Raúl Esparza in a zippy production directed by Neil Pepe. As Charlie, Esparza takes a giddy literal leap in a happy moment, bounding onto a chair, spinning around and hopping down, all in a delicate second. This choreographic bit demonstrates the fine-tuned artifice Esparza brings to the role--a presentational sensibility honed in his previous starring roles in Stephen Sondheim's Company and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. He handles the text as deftly. Without ever transgressing the fourth wall, he sputters, shrieks, drops to a gruff register, practically tap-dances the badinage. His partners don't quite keep up. The office temp (played woodenly by Madonna in the original production) is an underwritten part--a plot device, really--and Elisabeth Moss (she's Peggy on Mad Men) trots through it gamely but dimly. In the role of Bobby Gould, I saw Jeremy Piven (he's Ari on Entourage). He preened and drew on his undeniable presence to assert himself, attacking the language with more robustness than flair for its rude intricacies. He abruptly left the show after eight weeks (claiming fatigue from mercury poisoning) and has been replaced by longtime Mamet hand William H. Macy. After Piven walked out, ticket sales dropped from more than 70 percent capacity to merely 50 percent--celebrity dynamics that underline Mamet's point.
Incompletely equipped as most of these actors were, however, the productions fell flat for bigger reasons: the plays and their relationship to the times. At the moment that Mamet furnishes a handy, popular reference for the Blagojevich scandal, the plays feel obsolete. Like a corporate logo one can easily identify without ever using the product it adorns, Mamet's iconic status seems to have overtaken the work.
Perhaps because theater is the most communal of arts--in its production and consumption--serious dramatists tend to reflect on the national character. Their canonical plays take the country's spiritual temperature, often directly addressing what it means to be American at a given moment. Sometimes, they even announce their panoramic concerns in their titles: Edward Albee, The American Dream (1960); Tony Kushner, Angels in America (1990); Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play (1994).
Mamet was widely thought to be contributing to this tradition when he burst onto the scene with a play that name-checked the nation. American Buffalo premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1975 and then moved to Manhattan in early 1976; a new production opened a year later on Broadway (featuring Robert Duvall, Kenneth McMillan and John Savage.) The play's title refers to the nickel Don has sold, its engraved promises of unity and trust shown to be empty slogans. The title also suggests the decimation of a hounded breed--restless creatures that can't survive among the ruthless forces paving the ground beneath them. Don, Teach and Bob came into being in the era of President Gerald Ford: their bewildered stasis was everyone's. (Speed-the-Plow is minor Mamet in comparison--a mean-spirited minuet that does not share the tragic ambitions of American Buffalo.)
At the time, the boldest theater experimenters were cresting the last waves of the counterculture, breaking down much more than the fourth wall. In New York City, companies like the Open Theater, the Performance Group and Mabou Mines were dissolving--or at least blurring--the boundary between actor and role and exploring new means of dramatic expression through multimedia, ritual or environmental stagings. Director-devisors like Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson were killing off the psychologically motivated character in their (very different) new formalisms. Institutions like La MaMa, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and the Negro Ensemble Company--in their distinct ways--were challenging longstanding assumptions about the proper shapes and concerns of American drama and establishing new institutional models for presenting it. Performance art was inventing itself as a bold antiart in galleries, garages and public spaces. Plain old commercial plays were still being put on, but nobody much noticed or cared.
Mamet's genius was to fold the findings of the experimental ferment back into conventional form--but with a cantankerous twist. Sexual frankness, general outrage, raw energy, qualms about capitalism and the patchiness of America's promise: all these issues, kept at a rolling boil downtown, simmered pungently in Mamet's work. But they were carefully contained within the walls of narrative realism. And embodied by men. Manly men. Heterosexual men. The mainstream theater establishment was ecstatic. The well-made play had a scrappy new shape and, better still, a new idiom: a heightened language raked up from the gutter and spat out at the world by a dude.