When it comes to demonizing the male of the species, two American playwrights dominate the process: Neil LaBute and, even more notably, David Mamet, who, in his new play Bitter Wheat, has his vile protagonist opine that “humans are animals.” Apart from Mamet’s ongoing disillusion with mankind in general and men in particular, his other obsession is the venality of Hollywood, with Bitter Wheat his fourth foray into an ego-driven industry that, rather than “merchandising dreams,” is in the business of “laundering money.” The bile that Mamet regurgitates in his latest offering adds nothing to what he has already observed in his far superior play Speed the Plow, or in his films Wag the Dog and State and Main.
With classics such as The Bad and the Beautiful, Sunset Boulevard, The Big Knife, The Day of the Locust, The Last Tycoon and Swimming With Sharks, Hollywood has, for some redemptive reason, always cannibalised the hand that feeds it, and it is hardly surprising that the Me Too movement, with its high-profile protagonist Harvey Weinstein, appealed to Mamet, whose announcement in 2018 that he was going to write a play about it naturally raised eyebrows and expectations.
What is surprising for a playwright of Mamet’s proven capabilities, though, is how lazy a piece of work it is. Although he claims the play is a work of fiction, his insistence, according to a programme note, that any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental, is, to say the least, disingenuous.
Requisitioning every nook and cranny of the Garrick’s stage is Barney Fein, a foul-mouthed, overweight bully, emblazoned by the dominating presence of the show’s star, John Malkovich, whose opening line in which he excoriates a writer (Matthew Pidgeon) for a screenplay that’s “a piece of shit” he wants “to puke over,” sets the tone for the rest of the evening.
His next victim (though he self-pityingly claims to be a victim himself) is pretty Yung Kin Li (Ioanna Kimbook), a British-Korean actress-cum-writer he attempts to seduce with promises of turning her into the next Audrey Hepburn and producing her screenplay Dark Water, whose title he wants changed to Bitter Wheat despite her protests that it has nothing to do with wheat. Though she’s jet-lagged after a long flight from Seoul, he lures her from a restaurant to his hotel suite, where he invites her to massage his neck and watch him masturbate.
Though Mamet calls Bitter Wheat “a dark farce”, it isn’t until Act Two that farcical or satirical elements appear. Up to the point of Yung Kim Li’s (unsuccessful) seduction (she activates a fire alarm in the suite), the play has been little more than the toxic rant of an “evil,” unmitigated, exploitative predator whose wealth and power are licences to behave badly.
Part Two, in which Barney gets his come-uppance, goes from the abhorrent to the ridiculous. Barney’s (unseen) mother, who is dying of cancer does indeed die, but not from her illness. When informed by his long-time assistant Sondra (an under-used Doon Mackichan) that she’s been murdered by an illegal immigrant (Zephryn Taitte), he asks where? Bergdorf Goodman, comes the reply. What was she doing at Bergdorf Goodman? Returning the unwanted scarf she received from him for Christmas. The absurdity (or satire?) continues when the killer arrives in his office to pitch a script and has Barney apologising to him for the way America treats its immigrants.
With material better suited to a revue sketch, the question is, what was Mamet’s intention? What are we to make of his hero/villain – a man haunted by his inability to find love and obsessed with his corpulence? (Malkovich wears a fat suit). Is he an over-the-top figure of fun you laugh with, or a caricature of such depravity you feel nothing but scorn and loathing and laugh at? Because there is no backstory to his life, no character development and no insight into what turns a man into a monster, the play goes nowhere, making it difficult for Mamet, who also directs, to bring much light and shade to it. Even Malkovich’s performance suffers from stunted growth. Yes, he’s a mesmeric presence, and delivers the script’s several witty lines with élan. But on this occasion, a lot of Malkovich goes a short way.
The supporting cast barely gets a look in or add even a smidgen of heft to the text. It’s a major disappointment from a major talent.