Two takes on human nature: vicious and cynical

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(c) Michael Brosilow

Darrell W. Cox (left) and Lance Baker are Hollywood hucksters in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow."

Review: David Mamet’s "Oleanna" and "Speed-the-Plow" at American Theatre Company, Chicago

You have to love playwright David Mamet’s brand of cynicism. It is unbending, relentless and concise. To which one must add, virtuosic.

One helping of Mamet’s dark view of the human spirit invariably requires some time to process, which perhaps explains why the American Theater Company is doing his two short plays “Oleanna” and “Speed-the-Plow” not as a double bill but on separate evenings.

And that’s probably just as well for reasons beyond our limited capacity for theatrical mayhem.

“Oleanna,” about a female college student who brings serious charges against a professor, caused heated reactions in 1992 but now reads a bit dated. Moreover, the performance I saw showed too many of the fine seams in Mamet’s careening, blistering-fast dialog.

But “Speed-the-Plow” (1988), which concerns two Hollywood film producers who make a clear distinction between art and profit and give their all to the latter, was Mamet at full tilt, outrageous and precise, smart and deliciously dismaying. Here was  a cascade of dazzling dialog, supercharged and  laughter-inducing.

ATC’s “Speed-the-Plow” brings – or hurls – together Darrell W. Cox as Bobby Gould, a pragmatic Hollywood producer newly ensconced as the studio’s No. 2 man, and Lance Baker as Charlie Fox, his long-time second banana. Gould and Fox are self-described “whores” without any pretense of principle. They follow the money, of which Gould has raked in quite a lot and Fox, well, not so much.

But this is the day Charlie Fox’s luck changes. Like manna from heaven, he has been offered exclusive rights – for 24 hours — to a sure-fire blockbuster movie. When he brings the deal to Gould for financial backing, the two men wax ecstatic at the prospect of cash rolling in. But a speed bump slows their plow: A pretty temp secretary (Nicole Lowrance) turns Gould’s head and leads him on the upward path toward a different film and its noble message of spiritual transmutation.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Charlie Fox’s option. The stage is set for a showdown.

Did I mention virtuosity? Cox and Baker toss off Mamet’s rocketing dialog in the opening scene – fusillades of mutual praise mixed with hysterical confessions of their common whoredom – with the bow-fraying madness of two ace fiddlers trying to top each other. And later, when it looks like goodness is about to trump gain, Baker takes it up another notch in a hopping harangue made the more bizarre by the now-transfigured Gould’s indulgent calm.

How Gould gets to his new spiritual place is half the fun. At his apartment, the cute new temp shows up to report on her reading of the more uplifting screen play. Of course, Gould’s real objective is to bed the lass, but he listens – incredulously, as she makes her pious, feel-good case for the picture. This very funny production gets one of its biggest laughs as Cox, patiently taking in Lowrance’s moralistic harangue, punctuates one long paragraph with silence – then lifts his martini glass to his lips in wordless, voluminous reply.

Such spot-on timing isn’t always there in ATC’s companion staging of “Oleanna,” which stars Cox as a haughty college professor and Lowrance as a struggling student who visits his office with a desperate appeal for help in understanding his class.

The gist of the play is that the barely articulate girl accuses the self-important prof of sexual advances, and as they continue to meet the accuser gains in elocution and command as her teacher becomes progressively unglued and verbally impaired.

Written at the time of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas flap, “Oleanna” created a great stir, prompting feminist complaints that Mamet’s near-caricature of the girl as a vengeful demon impugned the just cause of women’s rights on campuses and in the workplace.

That was nearly 20 years ago. Viewed at this distance, the play might be construed quite differently, even as psychoanalytic theater. As the girl stammers her self-doubt, the professor reassures her by spelling out his own improbable journey into academia – and indeed his abiding skepticism of the whole educational process.  We get a very clear picture of a posturing man who conceals his self-loathing beneath a cloak of superiority.

What we have are two deeply neurotic characters who resonate to each other’s self-abnegation. Still, when the girl breaks down in convulsive sobs, the teacher – who has a child – reacts with a gesture of fatherly comfort. It will be his undoing.

Meanwhile, off-stage and between encounters, the girl connects with a Group and returns spitting polemical phrases at her embattled mentor. By now she seems a soulless, engineered automaton — an assassin, not unlike the Manchurian candidate. Caught up in her newfound righteousness, she supplants her teacher at the pulpit of arrogance.

Cox and Lowrance go at it with fur-shredding vehemence, though (at least on opening night) they did not have Mamet’s rapid-fire, fragmentary dialog quite in place. In the opening scene especially, they weren’t so much interrupting each other as suddenly breaking off in mid-sentence and waiting a heartbeat for the other to speak.

Little matter.  Incendiary as it remains, “Oleanna” also feels inherently contrived and artificial. To experience Mamet at his searing best, at full crackle and pop, catch “Speed-the-Plow.”

Both shows play through Oct. 31. www.atcweb.org. Call (773) 409-412.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.