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New Jewish Theater, 2013

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When artistic director Kathleen Sitzer welcomed the audience to the opening night production of Speed-the-Plow at the New Jewish Theatre, she observed that it’s the first time the 16-year-old troupe has ever staged a play by David Mamet.

Mamet is the prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and The Old Neighborhood, as well as screenplays, essays and Torah commentary. He hardly shies away from Jewish themes.

On the other hand, he’s unsentimental about the past, and his characters tend to express themselves in a rapid, edgy vernacular punctuated with four-letter words. In both regards, he stands apart from the general tone at NJT.

But Speed-the-Plow director Tim Ocel embraces Mamet and his distinctive voice, delivering a lusty treatment of this 1988 satire of Hollywood ethics (or lack thereof). Producer Bobby Gould (Christopher Hickey), a recurring character in Mamet’s plays, is thrilled when his old friend Charlie Fox (Michael James Reed) shows up with a potent offer: a prison movie with a big star already attached.

Charlie’s career hasn’t gone as well as Bobby’s, but this project virtually guarantees the kind of money and power they’ve only dreamed about. Then Bobby’s temporary secretary Karen (Sigrid Sutter) tempts his idealism, and also his libido, with her suggestion of another kind of movie, an art picture based on a book by a serious novelist.

Bobby is torn. What should he do, whom should he trust? The choices aren’t as obvious as you might guess, but remember Mamet’s core dictum: the essence of the actor’s art is lies.

Hickey, a little miscast as slick Bobby, opens the play with a discomfiting physical awkwardness, heaving himself up onto his desk or holding his head at an odd, upturned angle.

But he relaxes as the play progresses to a persuasive seduction, then to the battle royal as Karen and Charlie stake their competing claims. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai and lighting designer Maureen Berry give the settings for these encounters, Bobby’s office and his home, plenty of stylish gloss.

Sutter introduces Karen with a calculated innocence, decocted in a scene in which she apologizes profusely for not knowing how to make a lunch reservation. (In Hollywood? She’s got to be a liar.) By the time she’s at Bobby’s place, it’s not at all clear who is seducing whom.

But Reed just about steals the show. By turns boastful, vengeful, wily and desperate, his Charlie slithers through every conversational crack in search of his own advantage. He may not be an admirable character, but at least you can tell who he’s out for: Charlie Fox.

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