Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Speed-the-Plow" by Dark & Stormy Productions at the Miller Bag Building

the playbill for Speed-the-Plow, constructed
as a movie script with typewriter font
and brass fasteners holding it together
Today is Oscar Sunday, the day when we celebrate the best that Hollywood has to offer. It's entirely appropriate, then, that last night I saw the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow*, about the inner workings of a Hollywood studio and how one movie gets made instead of another. It's a rather cynical look at the movie business; the characters care most about making money. Judging from what's playing at my local cineplex, it's not entirely inaccurate. But with such small indie films as Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild on the Best Picture list alongside blockbusters Django Unchained and Lincoln, it seems there is a way for smaller (radiation) films to get made and appreciated. But not in the world of Speed-the-Plow, where a newly promoted studio executive has to decide between a sure money-maker, pitched by his longtime coworker and friend, and an artsy book about the end of the world, brought to him by a naive young woman who may have ulterior motives. It's smart, funny, and fast, and a great choice for Oscar weekend.

The new theater company Dark & Stormy Productions is again staging a theater production in a non-traditional setting, i.e., not an actual theater. Last summer they staged Outside Providence, a trio of short plays, in an office building in downtown Minneapolis. The location for this production is a building in Northeast Minneapolis. It looks like a cool office space, entirely appropriate for this play that takes place in a movie studio office. Also like Outside Providence, there are multiple staging areas, with the action moving to a new location in the space for the second act, and the audience following along. It's a fun change of pace from the usual theater where you sit in your seat in the dark for two hours. I also appreciated the high stools in the second row which provided a great view without having to see around someone's head.

Karen (Sara Marsh) makes her pitch
to Bobby (Bill McCallum)
The play begins in the office of Bobby Gould, sitting at a desk filled with movie scripts (the playbill itself looks like a movie script, a nice touch). In walks Charlie Fox to hand him a sure blockbuster with a big movie star. The two agree to share producing credits, a huge career boost for Charlie. Bobby will pitch it to the studio head (a mere formality, he assures), but can't get a meeting until tomorrow, which makes Charlie nervous. In the meantime, for a little misogynist fun, the two make a bet that Bobby can have "anything but a professional relationship" with temp secretary Karen. Bobby gives her a book to read as an excuse to get her to come to his house. But what he doesn't expect is that she takes the assignment seriously, and is so moved by the book (an end-of-the-world tale where all the world's radiation was sent by God to end life as we know it, or something like that) that she earnestly tries to convince Bobby to back the film. He has a decision to make, and in doing so rethinks his entire life and career.

Charlie (Kris L. Nelson) makes his pitch
to Bobby (Bill McCallum)
The dialogue is fast and funny, with characters speaking the way real people do, not always smooth and polished, but hesitating and talking over each other. The quick banter is well-executed by the three-person cast which includes a couple of Guthrie regulars, Bill McCallum and Kris L. Nelson, alongside Dark & Stormy Artistic Director Sara Marsh (add in frequent Guthrie director Benjamin McGovern, and you have a pretty high caliber of talent for a fledgling theater company). Sara is believable as the sweet and innocent Karen, who just wants to make a good movie out of this book she is so moved by (or does she?). Bill portrays Bobby as a typical greedy and confident studio exec, but with a little self-doubt creeping in when he's unexpectedly challenged by this woman he's just met. Last but not least, Kris is fantastic as Charlie, in a very physical performance that has him jittery and excited in the first act, and working himself into a frenzy in the third act when Bobby threatens to not back his film.

The mission of Dark & Stormy is to develop the 18-35-year-old theater audience, something they say is lacking. I'm slightly outside of that age range, but looking around at the theater I often find I'm one of the youngest people there (especially at certain theaters or on a Sunday matinee), so I think they have a point. The audience had a good laugh when Sara talked about the mission before the show, as we looked around to see that very few of the 30 or so people in the audience fit into this age range. The ideas are great - cool space, a small audience leading to an intimate experience, inexpensive ticket prices, relatively short run times - so hopefully the young audience will find them. But whatever your age, this is a great play by one of the best known American playwrights/screenwriters, with a great cast, in an interesting non-traditional space, which makes for a unique and entertaining evening at the theater, even for us old folks.

*Wikipedia tells me that the playwright explains the perplexing title thusly: "I remembered the saying that you see on a lot of old plates and mugs: 'Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.' This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so 'Speed-the-Plow' was perfect because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again."