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THEATRE: 16 NOVEMBER 2016

By SANDRA BOWDEN

Speed-the-Plow, by David Mamet | Directed by Andrew Upton

Sydney Theatre Company (https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au) | Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 17 December

Bobby Gould (Damon Herriman) is a man on the move in Hollywood. Sitting amongst scripts and books in his partially renovated office, he revels in his new role as head of production and the influence that brings.

Charlie Fox (Lachy Hulme) isn’t rising as fast as Bobby, but he’s about to get the opportunity of a lifetime, if he can convince Bobby to use his new power to greenlight a potential blockbuster buddy movie with superstar Doug Brown. It’s a one-time-only limited deal though, and Bobby and Charlie will have to move fast.

Karen (Rose Byrne) is filling in as temp for Bobby, and moving fast is a struggle as she juggles a coffee order and booking a pre-celebratory lunch for them.

As Bobby and Charlie rev each up about their impending success, the testosterone spills over into a tacky bet. Before their big pitch the next morning, Bobby will have seduced Karen.

The future is looking pretty bright for Bobby and Charlie — until their bet takes an unexpected turn. As part of his seduction plan, Bobby gives Karen the task of doing a “courtesy read” of a worthy — but unfilmworthy — book and preparing a report for him by that evening.

When Karen turns up at his slick apartment that night, her passion for the book convinces Bobby — probably thinking with a body part other than his brain at this point — that this should be the project he backs. Now he just has to break the news to Charlie.

Byrne’s Karen is an enigmatic mix of naiveté and guile. Before she is even seen, a picture is being drawn of an assistant without a clue — a temp filling in for Bobby’s regular employee. She can’t even work out the coffee machine. The men chuckle derisively. When Karen finally stumbles in, spoons clattering to the ground, looking like a rabbit in the headlights, it would be easy to dismiss her character as token ditz.

What Byrne manages in her interpretation of the character is to create doubt. Is she really that passionate about this well meaning but ponderous piece? Did she intend to — so to speak — screw Bobby as much as he did her?

While Byrne has the greater film presence — and thus a major drawcard for STC’s final 2016 production — her command of the stage is powerful. Add in the wide-ranging experience of Herriman and Hulme and Mamet’s lively dialogue and you have a hugely entertaining, slightly discomfiting 90-plus-minutes of theatre.

Speed-the-Plow was penned in the 80s and Upton has opted to keep the set and costumes of the era. Changing from Bobby’s semi-renovated office to his super-mod mirrored apartment and back again allows for a few moments of stretching followed by a how-did-they-do-that double-take.

If the point of satire is to create discomfort with social “norms”, to ridicule or criticise, then certainly Mamet was on point as we chuckle knowingly at the shallowness of their interaction and the machinations of Hollywood. The self-important money-fuelled bluster of Bobby and Charlie is reminiscent of the time — and sadly, the sexism highlighted in their wager appears all too pertinent based on certain current political situations. We’ve not come a long way, baby.

Playwright David Mamet is no stranger to criticism, and he’s been accused of penning more than one piece that treats sexism as an opportunity for humour without providing reflection on social change.

Director Andrew Upton, in his farewell gig for STC, has sought to focus on Mamet’s skills in economy of dialogue and wit, and this production delivers many things in its favour despite the controversy. In fact, it can be seen as a relic of a bygone era and thus worth seeing for its historical significance.

Rose Byrne and Damon Herriman in Speed-the-Plow. Images: Lisa Tomasetti.