What is the point of writing a play that confirms what everybody already thinks? This is the question that nags the mind after David Mamet’s latest play, which he also directs. That’s right. Mamet! The man whose great work Oleanna swam against the tide of political correctness in 1992 and who so brilliantly satirised Hollywood with his modern masterpiece Speed the Plow (1988).
This time, however, Mamet’s target is neither an industry nor a strand of political thinking, but one man. On stage he is known as Barney Fein, played by John Malkovich with a fat-suit that transforms Fein’s pristine white tuxedo shirt into the most inviting of pillows. But the name in the head of everyone watching this play is the disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein.
We first encounter this undisguised version of the mogul in his office where he is casually eviscerating a screenwriter about the final draft of his script. Fein’s indefensible position is that the screenplay is bad enough to withhold payment for but good enough to keep. If the writer complains or sues the producer candidly declares that he will bad-mouth the screenwriter’s career into a grave. And it is here that Mamet fans get a dose of the kind of savage dialogue that became a trademark of the Pulitzer-winning playwright’s work.
Yet other attributes typical of Mamet – such as craft or plot – are almost entirely absent. The play is constructed out of a series of loosely connected set pieces. After the scene in which grievous bodily harm is done to the writer’s work, comes a scene in which Fein’s long-suffering assistant Sondra (Doon Mackichan) discusses with her boss a plan to fake surprise when he receives an award for making the world a better place for mankind. Next up is a scene in which a starlet is manipulated into Fein‘s private quarters, where she becomes the target of his Viagra-driven libido.
Through most of this, the pitch of Malkovich’s performance rarely strays from a tonally flat unpleasantness that only occasionally rises to anger or dips to a self-indulgent sulk. It seems the key is to convey that this is a man for whom the sense of right and wrong only exists as a virtue to be exploited in other people. This amoral quality is at first interesting, and then actually, not very interesting at all. Because we never get a sense of how a person becomes like this.
Mamet uses no music, which aesthetically makes the evening an oddly spartan one. This would be fine if there were a riptide of gripping drama to sweep the show along. But much like Malkovich’s performance, the dramatic pitch here is largely one note – arch irony – which allows the actors few opportunities to escape from the plateau of cynicism that is this play's default setting. Granted, this tone can work well with satire. But satire is most suitable when the target is society, a culture – such as Hollywood (Speed the Plow) – or an institution. I’m not sure satire can work when the subject is an individual.
There are some arresting points made about certain strands of the film industry where filmmaking is not so much an art form as a form of money laundering. But detectable throughout is Mamet’s motive for writing the play. This appears to be his deep dislike of Weinstein and to show that the MeToo movement’s most notorious offender is a horrible man. We can perhaps expect further works revealing that the Pope is Catholic and that bears defecate in the woods.