Perfect theatre

Tonight we saw the revival of David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” at the Barrymore Theatre, starring William H. Macy, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, directed by Neil Pepe. And it was perfect.

Let me say at the outset that Mamet is not for everyone. There is not a trace of sentimentality on this stage. The psychology is fast-paced, take-no-prisoners and completely feral. The language is, quite frankly, filthy. But in a Mamet play, every single word counts – absolutely every moment contributes to the total. It’s an opportunity for the right cast and director to make a thing of great beauty.

And this was the right cast and director. From the very first moment, the play grabs you. The actors are on fire, relishing the fantastic, rhythmically potent lines – a kind of obscene poetry unique to Mamet, the layered high-wire personalities, the bravura pyrotechnics of characters who have spent their lives making so many compromising deals with themselves that they wouldn’t know truth if it knocked them down with a baseball bat. These characters are clever and funny – very funny – but in a fierce way that takes your breath away.

The play just builds and builds, establishing a sly premise, adding to it, using the character’s own flaws to placing them on a head-on collision course, with the rest of their lives as the stakes. And it all comes to a head in a showdown scene that has the entire audience completely gripped. A scene in which absolutely everything is laid on the line.

And then, after all of the verbal pyrotechnics, a single surprising (but perfectly consistent) line of dialog is uttered, and in that one moment everything realigns and resolves. The carefully placed cogs and wheels of Mamet’s drama all line up, things click, and all of the knots of conflict magically disappear. All in a single moment. And because the entire thing has been so expertly written, directed and played, the audience experiences this moment of revelation in all of its power and dramatic beauty.

If there is any chance at all that you can get yourself to New York to see this production while it is still running, I suggest you do so forthwith. This is why theatre is essential.

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