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One Mamet revival is genuinely reviving

November 17, 2008 |  8:00 pm

Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss in

The extremity of our greed-fueled economic crisis may have pessimists wondering whether American values have reached an all-time low. Two David Mamet plays from decades past currently being revived on Broadway suggest not. Our old conniving friends from “American Buffalo” and “Speed-the-Plow” do more than entertain us with their patented verbal jazz — they reassure us that we were just as crooked a generation ago.

Cold comfort, I know. But “Speed-the-Plow,” the far more throbbingly alive of the two productions, left me feeling as though I had just received the theatrical equivalent of a plasma infusion. Thrillingly acted by the unbeatable trio of Jeremy Piven, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, this taut tale of Hollywood power-mongering and manipulation could just as well be set in our era were it not for the fashion choices of these would-be movie moguls, which continually remind us that the play takes place in the garishly grasping 1980s.

New York is in a downcast mood now that that the tab from the financial industry’s orgy threatens to bankrupt the rest of us. But the electricity generated at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre by the bold attack of Neil Pepe’s staging could jolt theatergoers out of their slump. This relatively minor Mamet work from 1988 — famous for having lured Madonna’s star-power to Broadway — turns out to be one of the fall season’s major bright spots.

Charlie Fox (Esparza, in a performance that should by rights earn him that long-delayed Tony Award) brings a potential blockbuster deal to Bobby Gould (Piven, cutting a figure every bit as sharp as Ari Gold, the super-agent he killingly plays on HBO’s “Entourage”). Bobby has just been promoted to head of production, with the power to greenlight a film that comes in under $10 million. Charlie’s hoped-for “buddy picture,” sure to clobber at the box office, would cost considerably more than that, which means that Bobby will have to get the approval of his boss before Charlie and he can break into the big leagues.

Enter Karen (a note-perfect Moss), the temporary secretary with a casual sexiness and a sly idealistic streak, who becomes the subject of a bet between Charlie and Bobby about whether Bobby can bed her by day’s end. To win (all any top Tinseltown exec cares about), Bobby invites Karen to his home to deliver a report on some arty apocalyptic book that no one in his position would ever dream of turning into a film. Yet with a glass of wine and a seductive glare, Karen proves unexpectedly persuasive — to the outrage of an increasingly violent Charlie, who finds out the next morning that his project has been bumped for a ridiculous “courtesy read.”

Having seen the original Broadway production and the 2007 revival at the Geffen Playhouse, I didn’t hold out much hope for this return of “Speed-the-Plow.” But then I underestimated the extent to which actors can lift material when they’re in the right directorial hands (and there’s no question that Pepe has become Mamet’s ablest interpreter).

Piven’s Bobby and Esparza’s Charlie circle each other like predators who know they’ll land a bigger kill if they can maintain an alliance, all the time keeping an eye on their own vulnerable backs. The two men tackle Mamet’s language not just with their lashing tongues but with their writhing bodies, every moment expressing the desire to be so rich they’re “going to have to hire someone just to figure out the things” they want to buy. Sure, there may be some slipping and sliding in the opening scene, in which Piven’s and Esparza’s mouths have trouble keeping up with Mamet’s breakneck rap. But the general effect is so comically robust — and true to the expensively dressed jackals they’re portraying — that the skidding actually enhances the keenness of their characterizations.

Moss, whom my “Mad Men”-obsessed friends have been touting to me, is a revelation, capturing not just Karen’s corporate cluelessness but also her calculating quixotic strength. Her character may not be as deft as the boys in outmaneuvering opponents, but she’s no cipher. Mamet, it seems, really can write complicated female roles — he just needs to insist that they be cast with actresses who can supplement his chiseled words with their own feistiness.

“American Buffalo” may occupy a higher niche in the Mamet pantheon, but it’s exceedingly tough to nail onstage. The drama, set in a junk shop that blurs the line between business and crime, revolves around the planning of a heist that never gets off the ground. It’s a work in which the action is nearly entirely subsumed in banter that moves from the twisted to the profane — with a few scatological detours in between.

When this streetwise lingo was heard on Broadway in 1977, it was so groundbreaking that Mamet was crowned poet-king of the rough-and-tumble American male. Today, the language is less startling, and Robert Falls’ production, which opened Monday at the Belasco Theatre, doesn’t have much success offering new insights into the relationships of these small-time hoods who have a quaint moral code all their own.

The cast — the interesting if disparate threesome of John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment — works hard to contain Mamet’s verbal vitriol with a realistic style that might be better suited to TV than the stage.

The result is disappointingly juiceless, although there’s no denying that the characters’ collective desire to stretch the meaning of “free enterprise” could hardly be more timely.

-- Charles McNulty

Photo: Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss in "Speed-the-Plow." Credit: Brigitte Lacombe