New Mamet comedy dreams up a trio of Hollywood opportunists

Speed-the-Plow Play by David Mamet. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Starring Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver, Madonna. Brevity is the soul of ``Speed-the-Plow,'' David Mamet's sardonically witty new comedy at the Royale Theatre. Since it lacks heart, there is no need for concern about deeper feelings. This disenchanting descent into the Hollywood jungle might almost be said to do for moviemaking what his award-winning ``Glengarry Glen Ross'' did for the world of sleazy real estate agents. The difference is not so much in kind as in milieu. In tinsel city, the stakes are higher, and the opportunities to serve, or disserve, the public good are much broader.

``Speed-the-Plow'' opens as Bobby Gould (Joe Mantegna), recently installed production chief of a Hollywood studio, discusses a promising project with longtime pal Charlie Fox (Ron Silver), a fellow hustler of somewhat lower status. Charlie has come to Bobby with a commitment from a money star whose appearance in a prison picture will make the two cronies really rich. Their conversation is a running counterpoint of Hollywood one-upmanship, ego stroking, and obscenities - all couched in Mr. Mamet's headlong, rhythmically inimitable style.

Bobby also has, among his pile of manuscripts, a book by ``an Eastern sissy writer'' about radiation and the end of the world. For some quixotic reason, he decides to give it a ``courtesy reading.'' He assigns the book to Karen (Madonna), the temporary secretary whose innocence in the wiles of Hollywood proves more apparent than real.

In the course of an evening that leads to an inevitable seduction, Karen persuades Bobby to drop the prison flick and make the world's-end epic, driving Charlie to violent fury. Mr. Mamet concludes his blistering comedy with a final twist of irony.

Under Gregory Mosher's responsive direction, ``Speed-the-Plow'' is played by the three stars with a perception that penetrates the glossy surfaces of the wisecracks and jargon. Mr. Mantegna proves himself once more the consummate Mamet interpreter, in this case the personification of what-makes-Sammy-run. His self-important front hides a bundle of insecurities.

Mr. Silver's Charlie is the ultimate wheeler-dealer - brash, cajoling, and always outrageous. The glee with which a preview audience greeted his blatant opportunism was almost unsettling. A brunet Madonna completes the human equation. Hers is a quietly modulated Karen, a 1980s climber with a grasp of ``what every woman knows'' undreamed of by J.M. Barrie.

As popular entertainment, ``Speed-the-Plow'' (Mr. Mamet has refused to explain the title) is a case of no holds barred, no quarter given, and no expletives deleted. Theatergoers prepared to accept its raunchier dialogue may nevertheless wish that the talented dramatist had played for higher intellectual and emotional stakes. There is no real conflict of ideas in ``Speed-the-Plow'' - merely a clash involving three equally predatory opportunists. The blade of the Mamet plow is shiny and sharply cutting. But it is also pitted.

The Lincoln Center Theater production has been designed with a careful casualness. The setting by Michael Merritt, a red-draped stage and sometimes dust-covered furnishings, suggests the perpetually temporary state of an ephemeral industry. Kevin Rigdon lighted the scene and Nan Cibula designed the costumes.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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