Theatre Review – Soulpepper/David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow

American playwright David Mamet is all about language and rhythm. Characters like to hear themselves talk. They go off on riffs. Just a word from someone else can trigger the verbal diarrhoea. Other people can barely get a word in edge-wise. When something akin to dialogue happens, the words are fragments of thoughts which makes for the staccato rhythm of the Mametian cadence. Pacing is everything.

The good news about Soulpepper’s production of Speed-The-Plow is that director David Storch puts Mamet’s style in your face. It is artifice writ large. The audience is acutely aware that the characters live in an expressionism Mametian existence where reality has been placed on hold. Their fragmented sentences rage supreme. The emphasis on Mamet’s style may not be to all tastes, it being mostly loud and abrasive, but Storch has certainly paid homage to the playwright.

The title is taken from a 14th century olde English saying “God speed the plough”, which means “May you have prosperity”, which in itself is ironic as the 1988 play takes place in Los Angeles, and is about the movie business. Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen) has just been made head of production for a major movie studio. In Dana Osborne’s set, his new office is still under renovation. Bobby’s associate Charlie Fox (Jordan Pettle) brings him news that Douglas Brown, a huge star, likes the prison script that Charlie gave him, and will make the picture with their studio (and not the one across the street). Bobby immediately arranges a meeting with Richard Ross, the head of the studio.

Enter Karen, Bobby’s secretary temp. Charlie bets Bobby $100 that Bobby can’t bed her. In taking up the challenge, Bobby gives Karen a “courtesy read” – an important book that could never become a popular movie. It’s a weighty tome about radiation and the apocalypse. She’s to bring her notes about the book to his home that evening (whose large   picture window has the de rigueur, spectacular night time view of the Los Angeles cityscape). And so things are in place for the great crisis to happen that will affect the hopes and ambitions of all three people. The rest of the play is a veritable dance of death.

Cohen and Pettle are electric, shooting out their high voltage personas at incendiary speed. They are both mean, lean and hungry. The play, after all, is a satire about the movie business, and Mamet’s caustic touch, according to director Storch and his cast, has to be obvious. Sarah Wilson as Karen has the more difficult role. She is initially passive, but comes alive in the second act when she justifies the movie potential of the radiation book. Wilson pulls off this difficult feat with aplomb – an enthusiastic, almost naïve overtone, with a strong sexual subtext.

The play runs all three acts together, but the 100 minutes fly by on the wings of Mamet’s corrosive language and the cast’s acute delivery.

Speed-The-Plow by David Mamet, (starring Ari Cohen, Jordan Pettle and Sarah Wilson, directed by David Storch), Soulpepper, Young Centre, Jul. 5 to Sept. 22, 2012





Theatre Review – Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers

Neil Simon’s 1991 play Lost in Yonkers cleaned up at the Tony Awards and won a Pulitzer Prize. Two decades later, the play still has legs, and there is much to like in the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company production.

The plot centres around the Kurnitz family.  Young Jay (Alessandro Costantini) and Arty (Jesse Shimko) are sent to live with their stern grandmother (Marion Ross) while their father Eddie (David Eisner) goes on the road selling scrap metal during the war. He has to pay off a loan shark for medical debts stemming from his late wife’s illness. Also in the cast are Eddie’s gangster brother Louie (Ari Cohen), his mentally challenged sister Bella (Finnerty Steeves) and his passive sister Gert (Sheila McCarthy).

This being Neil Simon, we know we are in for a lot of zingy one liners, but that we will get hit by the dark side sooner or later. It’s to director Jim Warren’s credit that he gets both the laughs and the poignancy. Sue LePage’s set and Lori Hickling’s costumes capture the 1940s perfectly.

Steeves, who played Bella in the recent New York revival, is a last minute replacement for Linda Kash. (Kash had to withdraw due to a death in the family, but will be back for the final weekend performances.) Steeves is just lovely in the role, capturing Bella’s childish vulnerability as well as her feistiness. Cohen has never turned in a bad performance and his Louis is both dangerous and charming. McCarthy makes her small role of Gert count for something. The young boys, Costantini and Shimko, may be a bit strident, and seem to be played all on one note, but they get their laughs. Eisner makes for a sympathetic Eddie.

The weak link is Ross, a well-known American television actress. She just is not frightening or commanding as Grandma Kurnitz, although her confrontation scene with Bella works well. We hear a lot about her character before she makes her appearance, but it is more of a whimper than a bang when she does come on stage. Did HGJTC choose Ross for her name power? I can’t believe there wasn’t a Canadian actress who could do the part better. Grandma’s strength and will power dominate the story and they just aren’t there in Ross’ performance.

Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon, Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, (starring Marion Ross, Finnerty Steeves, Ari Cohen, Sheila McCarthy, David Eisner, Alessandro Costantini and Jesse Shimko, directed by Jim Warren), Jane Mallett Theatre, May 12 to Jun. 10, 2012