David Mamet, whose new play, Speed-the-Plow, is having a successful run in New York, grew up in Chicago, where he sought a career in the theater by, among other things, working as a busboy at the Second City and (because his uncle was director of broadcasting for the Chicago Board of Rabbis) performing as an actor on religious programs on television. His success as a playwright began with his plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, both of which were praised for their fine construction and the skillful way in which Mamet was able to re-create the talk of his characters, most of them con artists and deadbeats. He went on to write other kinds of plays, like A Life in the Theater, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He has also written the screenplays of the films The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Untouchables, among others.
The New York Times has apparently discovered in him the abundant creativity and promise its critics have found in such other cultural figures as Stephen Sondheim and Elie Wiesel, and have amply celebrated him. An article published in 1985 entitled “The Gritty Eloquence of David Mamet” commented that in “both his stark writing style and his fascination with the male tribe…Mamet resembles Ernest Hemingway more, perhaps, than any other writer of his generation” (Samuel G. Friedman, The New York Times Magazine, April 21, 1985, p. 32). The theatrical critic of the Times, Frank Rich, wrote that Glengarry Glen Ross showed that Mamet’s talent for “burying layers of meaning into simple, precisely distilled idiomatic language” is a talent that “can only be compared to Harold Pinter’s.” In his review of Speed-the-Plow, which opened early in May, the same critic wrote that the play “may be the most cynical and exciting yet” of the “genre” of writing about Hollywood by embittered novelists and playwrights and other writers; it is a play, he goes on, that “pitilessly implicates the society whose own fantasies about power and money keep the dream factory in business.” In still another piece he called Mamet a “master of language” and the play a “crackling good tale.”
Mamet’s are actors’ plays, opportunities for spectacular performances, while not always conveying much of interest in themselves. Reading a play like Speed-the-Plow gives one little idea of how exciting some of it can be when skillfully directed on the stage and performed by actors of the caliber that Mamet has been able to assemble, in this case Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver. He is also fortunate to have a gifted director, Gregory Mosher, once the director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago and now the director of the Lincoln Center Theater, who has directed many of Mamet’s other plays. Mosher moves the action of the play along expertly, if at times somewhat too quickly, as if the play were another Front Page. But even …