Piven 'Plows' Out, 'Dog' Still Has Bite

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

speedplow-1.jpg David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow has always been a play that makes headlines. When it first appeared on Broadway, the buzz was about Madonna making her stage debut in the part of Karen, a Hollywood D-Girl on the make. This year, in its first Broadway revival since that Tony Award-winning production, Speed-the-Plow is again making headlines thanks to who's dropping out of it. This week it was announced that Jeremy Piven of Entourage fame is leaving the part of Bobby Gould after only 50 performances of what was his Broadway debut.

Piven claims to be suffering from high levels of Mercury in his body, which prompted Mamet to tell Variety, "He's giving up show business to pursue a career as a thermometer."

It's great for Broadway lore; but the sad thing is, I caught one of Piven's final performances last week, and he was really good in the role of Bobby Gould. Playing a slick studio executive is not much of a stretch for Piven after his success playing agent Ari Gold, but on stage he brought a lived-in, authenticity to the role and an awkward insecurity to the scenes with his producing partner in crime, Charlie Fox (who’s well played by Raul Esparza).

speedplow5.jpg If one were looking for character motivation in Piven's exit, perhaps it was because the real star of this production is Elizabeth Moss (of TV's Mad Men) in the role of Karen. Unlike Alicia Silverstone, who played Karen in last season's L.A. revival at the Geffen Playhouse, Moss makes Kate a believable challenger to the men’s world. She gives the play balance—with Moss, it's not just about two fast-talking hustlers, it’s about fleeting arrangements of power—a sort of riff on Pinter's The Homecoming that just happens to be set in Hollywood. Neil Pepe’s assured direction plays a key part of all of this too. In his hands, we can feel the power shift in this triangle faster than we can hear it—which given the rapid fire of Mamet’s dialogue is no small feat.

Last season on Broadway also saw a hit play about Hollywood: Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed. Like Speed-the-Plow, Beane's comedy is about two people who form an uneasy alliance that will gain them millions as long as they can stick together. In Speed-the-Plow the variable that threatens this is Karen, the young, seemingly idealistic woman; in The Little Dog Laughed it’s a young, romantic male hustler.

johnny_galecki.jpg For the West Coast Premiere of The Little Dog Laughed this young man is played with subtlety by Johnny Galecki. Galecki's character goes by many names, but the name he insists Mitchell call him is "Alex." Mitchell, a rising Hollywood star, takes a liking to Alex one night and soon wants to go public with their relationship. But this threatens the commercial prospects of Mitchell's new movie, which means that Mitchell's manager, Diane (herself an avowed lesbian) has to break them up and get her star back in to the proverbial closet so they can make their millions.

The humor in both these plays comes from watching people who will do anything for a buck, try to pretend to be in the Hollywood rat race for anything but the money—and then from watching these same people proudly proclaim that, yes, they will do anything to get rich because ultimately that's what everyone does, right?

Mamet is interested in why people do this, whereas Douglas Carter Beane is only interested in how people do it. Luckily in this play, they do it quite amusingly. The play is chock full of funny, gossipy quips that will have you in stitches during the show but that evaporate as soon as you're leaving the theater. The reason to see the show is Julie White, reprising her Tony-Award winning performance as Diane the uber-manager. Credit Beane for writing a character who says nothing that can't fit in a Blackberry subject line, credit White for ensuring that those lines always sound as if they were typed in All Caps.

The Little Dog Laughed runs through December 21 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City; Speed-the-Plow runs through February 22 at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Julie White and Johnny Galecki in Little Dog Laughed; photo by Craig Schwartz