David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow”

Speed the Plow

Recently I had a front-row seat at a performance of David Mamet‘s play “Speed-the-Plow” in London. The play has only three performers: Richard Schiff, best known for his role as Toby Ziegler in TV’s The West Wing; British actor Nigel Lindsay (the Jewish terrorist Levi in HBO’s exceptional miniseries Rome), whom I knew was British before the play began but whose American accent, gestures and delivery were so perfect that I doubted my own ears and eyes; and Lindsay Lohan, the ostensible star of the show, whose solo headshot graces every poster for the play.

Despite some early bad press over botched previews in which Lohan embarrassed herself by being unable to remember her lines, London reviewers have been pretty kind to her. Her role of Karen, a temporary secretary, was first performed on Broadway in 1988 by Madonna. Lohan was perfectly adequate in the first act of the show, but was painfully outclassed by her two costars—they knew better how to deliver Mamet’s rapid-fire but sometimes awkward dialog. Lohan was featured more prominently in the second act, when she was completely overshadowed by Schiff. She began speaking at an intensity level of about eight and kept her delivery right there throughout the act, never pulling back and leaving herself no way to build drama, and delivering her lines in awkward ways that showed a lack of forethought about the meaning of her words, which made them feel especially stagey. By starting out at that level of energy and earnestness, she left her performance nowhere to go. She missed all the dramatic dynamics that would have given her room to move and would have made her speeches feel more like actual dialog. She remembered her lines, but delivered many of them unnaturally, underscoring the difficulty some actors have with Mamet’s idiosyncratic rhythms and old-fashioned phrases.

David Mamet is a much better writer of male than female dialog, emphasizing as he usually does a particularly hardboiled hypermasculinity, so poor Lohan was already at a disadvantage. (Think of Alec Baldwin’s famously testosterone-fueled “steak knives” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross and you’ll get an idea of Mamet in his element.) Schiff reacted beautifully in every moment, with subtle emotions flickering across his face and just the right body language to make me feel like he was hearing those words for the first time. The third act brought Lohan back onto the scene only briefly, while Nigel Lindsay and Schiff got to share the powerfully angry chemistry of two middle-aged men engaged in a career-defining battle of wills. Their scenes together were compelling as they bantered back and forth in the way of jaded, hardnosed, behind-the-scenes players in the movie business, their strength and status shifting hugely during the course of the story. These men are “actors’ actors,” the sorts of performers who react perfectly naturally in the moment and make their costars look better in the process. Their mastery disappears into the seeming effortlessness of their performances.

Lohan was not bad, but she didn’t show the discipline required to have learned the lines well enough to seem to forget them, as the best actors do. Hers was not a subtle performance. And while there’s a great deal of macho bombast in the two male performers’ roles, they also have to show range and vulnerability behind their cynical posturing. The opportunity to see whether Lohan crashes and burns in live performance may fill the seats (and there were certainly many young female fans of hers in the audience and around the stage door waiting for her as I passed it after the play), but what made the evening worthwhile was the skill shown by her extraordinarily talented costars.

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