“It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.” That’s the moral humorist James Thurber attached to the update of “Little Red Riding Hood” in his Fables for Our Time, which still resonates in our rather later time. It could easily serve, for instance, as an epigraph to any of the three plays covered in this review. Even more applicable would be its obverse: Where little girls are concerned, the ability of little boys to delude themselves never ceases. Two of the plays come from 1988; the third, practically an antique, dates from 1950 but is set half a century earlier. Yet the masculine misbehavior they all graph so accurately keeps them current. Only the diction, the cultural accessories, and the technology have dated; man is what man was.
Both David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow and Howard Korder’s Boys’ Life were first produced almost simultaneously by the same institution, Lincoln Center Theater. Their characters’ situation reflects the two authors’ relative positions then: The two guys in Speed-the-Plow are experienced types moving into the big-time; the three in Boys’ Life are beginners on that road. Mamet’s play premiered on Broadway, with Lincoln Center’s then artistic director, longtime Mamet collaborator Gregory Mosher, directing; Boys’ Life was unveiled in the company’s Off-Broadway-size Newhouse Theater, where the Atlantic Theater Company, newly founded by students of Mamet and the actor W.H. Macy (who directed), was in residence.
Both plays’ titles are sardonic jokes. Mamet’s is an ancient rural British phrase referring to the quick drink a farm laborer might grab at the village pub to help him through his workday. Korder’s evokes a bygone America: Boys’ Life was a popular magazine, geared to pre-adolescents, in the days when gender roles were predetermined. Both imply the eternal adolescence of ostensibly adult males.
Mamet’s movie producers, Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven) and Charlie Fox (Raúl Esparza), deploying multimillion-dollar budgets to feed the mass audience ever more shlocky male fantasies, mark no improvement over rowdy farmhands getting drunk at midday. Korder’s three post-collegiates, Jack (Rhys Coiro), Don (Peter Scanavino), and Phil (Jason Biggs), face the real-world difficulty of jobs and relationships with the wistful reluctance of Huck Finn wishing he were back on the raft. Both plays revolve around women, perceived by these males as accessories, targets, excuses, burdens, toys, or almost anything else except three-dimensional human beings.
Therein lies the drama. Mamet’s fast-talking, frenzy-fueled comedy pits newly appointed Head of Production Gould and his best-buddy underling Fox against the seemingly clueless office temp Karen (Elizabeth Moss). A wager about how easily she’ll fall into bed seems the perfect speed-the-plow to baptize Gould’s first day on the job. But Karen wields the two weapons that can disorient these biz-wise guys: idealism and sex. The cannier Fox needs violent intervention to rescue Gould from disaster. The absurd pettiness of what’s at stake—basically one kind of lousy movie versus another—doesn’t alter the truth of the comic matrix: This is the level on which “the creative industry,” and others, are conducted in America.
Mamet’s verbal goofballing—what other playwright could cite both “Mairzy Doats” and the Baal Shem Tov?—keeps the short (75-minute) event constantly bubbly. Meantime, Neil Pepe’s high-speed production keeps the action both taut and firmly grounded. His male leads’ contrasting styles blend nicely: Piven, machine-gunning his lines in a Method-actor rasp, makes a somber rock against which the waves of Esparza’s bright musicality can splash and sparkle. The glorious moment, over in a flash—when Esparza, in excitement, leaps onto a chair, spins around, and jumps down again—illustrates perfectly why musical-theater skills belong in every actor’s toolkit.
Moss, though carefully coached, has a hard time competing with her co-stars’ dueling modes of flamboyance. But she has, unlike Madonna in the original, a vivacious presence that keeps her interesting onstage. The play’s middle scene, a tough task for any actress, needs a drive and variety that she can’t yet supply, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her improving by leaps and bounds.
The leap into adulthood is the one Korder’s trio of males never quite makes. Dry, tart, and melancholic, Boys’ Life evokes not only early Mamet but that female practitioner of the Chekhovian cartoon, Wendy Wasserstein: Korder’s heroes are all-too-common men, two of them hapless bumblers in a world that’s rewriting the gender-politics rule book, the third trapped in the new order and hating it.
The trapped party is Jack, house-husband to a rising female banker, who vents his frustrations by ragging his less bright, more vulnerable buddies. But the mating call outwits him: Muddled Don stands up for his girlfriend’s dignity and actually gets somewhere; pushed-around Phil learns to fight back for personal integrity. The last word—from a woman—puts Jack permanently in his place.
Michael Greif’s production catches Korder’s sour-cream tone so well that the script seems brand-new; if only Mark Wendland’s playful sets could shift as speedily as the dialogue’s tone. Stephanie March and Betty Gilpin, as the targets of Jack and Don’s interest respectively, make a notable impression; Scanavino strengthens the one he made last year in Shining City. And Coiro’s Jack, his discomfiting bitterness always visible just under the smiling exterior, is a really memorable achievement.
Nothing’s really memorable, sadly, about that sweet-natured and creaky old piece of stage furniture, Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter. Here, male and female actually learn, over the decades, how to live together; this is a European play. But it needs two stars’ charisma, plus ultra-detailed, imaginative directing, to come across. Jessica Dickey and Todd Weeks radiate lovableness, but not stardom; Blake Lawrence’s direction strands them in a seemingly unchanging time. A revival of the musical version, I Do! I Do!, would be wiser, if we had the stars for it.