Saturday, March 15, 2008


A British coworker of mine recently returned from a trip to New York and mentioned how confused she was by all of the road signs about “snow plows”. In England, plow is spelled “plough”, so “plow” looks like it might rhyme with “blow”, especially when sitting next to "snow". Many Americans would probably look at “plough” and think, “Hmm, what does ‘pluff’ mean?”. I’d be tempted to say that we Americans got it wrong with our typically cavalier approach to language, except that there is simply no rule on the proper usage of “-ow” versus “-ough”, or the pronunciation of either of these in the first place. Take the Dr. Seuss book “The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough” - that’s four pronunciations for “-ough” and he even left out “ought” and "slough" (in the "sloo" sense). So that’s six pronunciations: off, uff, ow, oh, aw, and ooo. And who knows why "draught" is pronounced "draft". On behalf of the English-speaking world, I apologize to all people trying to learn English.

Although my thought is that he ought to be ploughing in a slough

Normally, I think the British are guilty of more strange pronunciations than Americans, particularly when it comes to place names, and even they will tend to agree with this. An unsuspecting American presented with Warwick, Belvoir, Happisburgh, Torpenhow, and Woolfardisworthy would be completely out of luck (“war-ick”, “beaver”, “hays-bruh”, “truh-penna”, and “woolsree”). However, even these oddly pronounced English towns are easy compared to Welsh town names, what with a town honestly named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (you can hear the name pronounced here).

We will soon be arriving at Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

This is all a very roundabout way of getting to the topic of this post, which is the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow starring Kevin Spacey, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Michelle Kelly, which has been getting great reviews recently. We went to see this at the famed Old Vic in Southwark (naturally, pronounced “suth-ick”). Kevin Spacey is certainly famous as a film actor, but is also renowned as a stage actor as well. We had both always wanted to see him live, particularly after his hugely praised work some years ago in The Iceman Cometh, but we never thought that we would ever get the chance. By the time most plays come to San Francisco, the original Kevin Spacey tends to get replaced by someone like Judd Nelson attempting a comeback. Remember, we saw Huey Lewis in Chicago. Jeff Goldblum is well-known as a film actor, appearing in classics like Annie Hall, The Fly, Jurassic Park, and Earth Girls are Easy, but he is not particularly known for his work on stage, so we were curious to see how he would do.

Spacey and Goldblum as smarmy Hollywood producers

As the spelling of “plow” suggests, this is an American play, with American themes, and extremely American rapid-fire dialogue. At times I wondered if most of the audience was understanding half of the dialogue, which was very fast and loaded with American slang. It probably wasn’t a problem, given the steady flow of American TV and movies here in the UK, but sometimes even I was still figuring out why one line was clever by the time another was being flung at me.

Like some of Mamet’s other work, e.g., Glengarry Glen Ross or Wag the Dog, the play was very quick-witted and cynical. In this case, much like Mamet's State and Main (one of my very favorite movies, but only for those with a very quirky sense of humor), Speed-the-Plow is largely a satire of Hollywood commercialism, vanity, and insincerity. Since it only involves three characters, the acting has to be top-notch for the play to work, and these three definitely pulled it off. Kevin Spacey was frenetic and intense and was absolutely incredible to watch on stage. There's no doubt that he has a bit of an ego (he's the Artistic Director at the Old Vic, and he put his picture on the wall next to pictures of true legends Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, and John Gielgud), but the man can act. I had my worries about Jeff Goldblum, who always seems to play versions of himself in most movies, but he was very natural and believable. And very very tall. Laura Michelle Kelly had a few problems with the American accent, sometimes slipping into her own British accent, but otherwise fit her role very well.

Scenes from the Speed-the-Plow

Unfortunately, the play only had only a moderately decent story, and the second act wandered off onto long philosophical tangents that detracted from the main thrust of the plot. Also, Mamet simply does not write well for women, tending to produce flat dialogue and shallow stereotypical characterizations that make it seem like he treats the female psyche as hostile foreign territory. While the play's name might suggest a reference to the 1798 play Speed the Plough by Thomas Morton, or to the traditional fiddle tune of the same name, Mamet took the name from slogans he had seen on old plates and mugs that read “Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow” - even knowing this, I have trouble seeing how the name applies to the play. Despite all of these problems, the dialogue and chemistry between Spacey and Goldblum was simply amazing and felt spontaneous, the set design was incredible, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The Broadway version of Speed-the-Plow opening later this year was rumored to be starring Jessica Alba, who has more talent for applying lip gloss than acting. While this would add an Alanis-Morisette-esque extra layer of irony to the Hollywood satire in the play, I don’t think we’ll be jumping on a plane to see this one. Once again, theatre in London ploughs down the competition.

1 comment:

I forgot my mantra said...

This all sounds better than ending up in gaol. Or getting kicked to the kerb.