As Hilltopper theater fans will tell you, magic happens at the . Dramatic magic is set to hit the boards again on February 18 when the historic community theater–one of the oldest amateur companies in the nation–premieres its latest production, David Mamet’s satirical look at Hollywood movie-making, “Speed the Plow.”
The show is presently a work in progress: The third week of rehearsal has just begun. Actors are still learning their lines and blocking (the ins and out of when and where they walk, sit, and stand). Scenery has been constructed but has yet to be painted. Promotion and non-subscription ticket sales are just getting under way. But along with requiring a lot of work in advance, mounting this particular play carries with it a great deal of risk. Mamet’s works, among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Glengarry Glen Ross” and the popular films Wag the Dog and The Verdict, are known for presenting difficult moral questions. On top of that, there is the often crude language the playwright gives his characters to speak. Given that Summit theatergoers tend to be older and fairly conservative in their leanings, it may surprise some that the Playhouse Association’s board would choose such a property.
“It wasn’t our first choice,” said Lindsey Nazelli, the play’s producer and a board member. “Initially, we wanted to do ‘Rabbit Hole,’ another challenging piece, but the Chatham Community Players won the rights. So instead, we opted for ‘Speed the Plow,’ and we believe it’s an excellent choice.”
In fact, the Playhouse Association looks for particularly challenging works to present on occasion. Part of its mission is to give Summit audiences theatrical experiences that they might not find at other community venues.
“We see part of our job as bringing new viewpoints to our audiences, and this play certainly does that job," Nazelli said.
Planning for the production began last fall with the search for a director. Ultimately the job went to Trey Compton, a New Yorker known for his work as an assistant director for off-Broadway and college productions.
“I saw an ad on Playbill and had to apply,” Compton recalled, noting that he has always been a Mamet fan. Knowing the playwright’s works well, he was familiar with the challenge it presents. “I’ve always thought Mamet was a bit like Marshmallow Peeps. Either people really like him or they really hate him–it’s not for everybody. It’s a very specific style.”
Compton insists that “Speed the Plow” is a worthwhile piece for those willing to take the leap to perform or see it.
“This is one of my favorite Mamet plays," he said. "I see it every chance I can because it is such a unique piece. Every time, I hear something new and I think something different about the characters, depending on the play and the cast. When I saw Summit Playhouse was doing it, I said, ‘Please let me come and at least interview for it. I live in the city–it’ll be a commute, but let me interview for it.’ So they interviewed me, and it went well.”
The board also embraced the challenge of naming longtime actor and board member Nazelli as the play’s producer. After a career working in local and regional community and professional theater, she took time off to raise her family in Summit and then returned to the boards.
“I decided I wanted to do something to contribute to the theater beyond performing. Being a mother taught me to be very organized, so producing seemed like the perfect opportunity to put that skill to work for a good cause,” she said.
After nailing down the principals of the backstage team, the board set about holding actor auditions in early December.
“It was probably the biggest audition turnout that the Playhouse has ever seen,” Nazelli said. “We saw some excellent performers. And the cast we have is so talented.”
The play features only three actors: Robert Barwick of Wayne portrays recently promoted Hollywood production executive Bob Gould (Joe Mantegna originated the role on Broadway; Jeremy Piven played the role in the recent revival and left the part due to a controversial sushi allergy), Cedar Grove’s Danielle Pennisi plays temporary assistant Karen (which Madonna played in the original cast), and James Sloan, a New York actor, portrays Charlie Fox, a producer who works under Gould (the late Ron Silver won the Tony Award for this role in 1988). The story involves Hollywood back room deal-making and the morality involved in making movies for money or for art.
The quandary facing Gould and Fox is similar to the one facing community theaters, Compton believes. Most, he says, would not consider doing a play like “Speed the Plow.”
“I enjoy community theater and I enjoy what it does, but one of its limitations too often is that companies need to do what always sells, so we see “Sound of Music” for the 90th time. You know, I love “The Sound of Music,” but I love it for about eight or nine times, you know what I mean?” he said. “I have enormous respect for the people on the Summit Playhouse board, because they chose to do this play. And this theater has been here, in this space, since 1918. When you see the past productions done here, it’s amazing to see. I mean, my goodness, they’ve done “Doubt,” a very controversial piece. This board has courage.”
Compton recalls that during his interview for the directing job, he was asked whether “Speed the Plow” was a comedy or a drama. “I said, ‘It’s a Mamet play. I’m sorry, that’s a bit of a cop-out answer, but it’s a weird fusion of comedy and drama. It’s a Mamet play.’
“Half the audience is going to be laughing and the other half is not. It’s a unique theatrical experience. It’s its own breed of theater,” he said. “How many plays featuring three people are love triangles? This is not a love triangle. This is the story of a man being pulled between two ideas–it’s a moral triangle. I love theater that leaves a bit to the imagination. You leave the theater and you don’t talk about dinner, you talk about what you just saw. It starts as a conversation and ends with a bit of argument. Mamet’s plays leave a door open for people in the audience to interpret for themselves, and that makes compelling theater. That’s part of the reason why some people don’t like Mamet’s work–it’s a little bit in your face. But I think, why do theater if it’s not going to ask questions? Yes, sometimes people just want to be entertained, and that is a good reason to go to the theater. With ‘Speed the Plow,’ though, we’re not here to do that. We’re here to push the envelope and ask tough questions.”
Producer Nazelli agrees.
“I expect that some will be offended by the language, and I am sorry about that. We are letting people know about the language, though, and those who make the choice to come and to stay will be rewarded with an amazing and thoughtful experience,” she said. “We’re also hoping that we will attract new and younger people as well.”
The other challenge facing the cast and crew is making the play come to life. The Playhouse is a tiny venue, and “Speed the Plow” calls for two separate sets on one small stage. (The play features three scenes in two settings, and there is no intermission.) Nazelli said that Compton came up with an idea: building a set with a huge, hinged wall. When closed, it is the backing for an office set, and when opened, it becomes an apartment.
“The director envisions the set changing–the wall moving and furniture being moved into position–within one minute,” Nazelli explained. “Technical rehearsals will be tricky, but if this works–and we believe it will–the transition between scenes should be smooth.”
It helps that everyone at the Playhouse –cast, crew, officials–are determined to make this risky production a success. “I can’t stress how much respect I have for the people here,” Compton said. “Every year they have to do something that sells, but they always leave room to take a risk. This production of 'Speed the Plow' is the proof. Some may hate it, some may love it, but this community will support it and take a chance to see something new that they have never seen before. And the moral of the play is something we all should hear. This is going to be a success. I’m confident.”
"Speed the Plow" offers one preview performance on February 17 at 8 p.m. The play opens February 18 and runs every Friday and Saturday through March 5 at 8 p.m. There are also two additional performances: Thursday, February 24 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 27 at 2 p.m. The February 24 performance is a benefit for the New Providence Garden Club. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students 18 and under.