In the fourth episode of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, everybody’s favorite new pop comedy duo from New Zealand performs “Business Time,” a song about making love, making love for two, making love for twooo minutes. The song is funny and sweet at the same time, because we all can relate to being so busy with work and so desperately out of touch with our sexual partner that virtually any mundane gesture is read as an invitation for a little “business time.” Near the beginning of the song, Jemaine, one half of the pop comedy duo, sings, “You turn to me and say something sexy like, ‘I might go to bed, I’ve got work in the morning’/But I know what you’re really trying to say, baby/You’re trying to say, ‘Awww, yeah, it’s business time.’ ”
Using business as a linguistic metaphor for sex is also funny because it inverts the primary artistic conceit of David Mamet’s career—using sex as a linguistic metaphor for business. For the last twenty years, we’ve watched Mamet’s characters demanding, “What, are you some kind of a f***ing p***y?” in plays and Hollywood movies so many times that sex as a metaphor for business has become standard: Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables, and Speed-the-Plow have given rise to The Player, Swimming with Sharks, Entourage, and basically Aaron Eckhart’s entire career. We’ve seen Mamet’s metaphor played out on the stage and screen so many times, heard his language so often, that sex as business has become such an overbearing orthodoxy that a rudimentary inversion can make pop comedy duos from New Zealand famous overnight.
The Jungle Theater is putting on Speed-the-Plow this harvest season: this is the 1988 source (along with '84’s Glengarry), of Mamet’s sex-as-business metaphor. Back in the day, this play about one Hollywood exec betting $500 that the other Hollywood exec couldn’t get his temp to f**k him impressed audiences and critics and angered feminists. I have no idea if it felt new then, but when the Jungle’s version begins, it certainly does not. You’ve seen this scenario so many times—slick, cynical, Jewish (the characters are named Gould and Fox) Hollywood suits selling-out-art-for-crass-commerce—that for the first ten minutes, it feels so stale, so artificial, that you’re kind of annoyed the audience you’re in the middle of, way out here in some Podunk theater so far from Power Hollywood, even has the ability to chortle knowingly about these characters. That this kind of sell-out, greedy, who-cares-about-the-little-people, screw job is so commonplace at this point that you can’t even get close to mustering as much outrage as those feminists back in the '80s.
But, in fact, that’s exactly where the f**k Mamet wants you. Mamet’s rhythm, as always, takes a little getting used to, even though the characters talk, ostensibly, in the same mode many of us do in America, 2007: profane, disingenuous, distracted. And even though the talk seems so cheap, not many of us can come up with as many great lines as he does: “Yeah, I believe in the Yellow Pages too, but I don’t want to shoot it!” Or: “Come on, Bobby, if you can’t summarize what it’s about in a sentence, it ain’t going in the TV Guide.” And the actors, Tim McGee as Bobby Gould, Steve Sweere as Charlie Fox, and Heidi Bakke as Karen, deliver all of them in that particular so-natural-it’s-unnatural Mamet way.
All three of them are great, but Bakke, as Karen, has the most difficult role. And she pulls it off, throws it down, and shakes it until her daddy moans "stop." She’s introduced as the naïve temp hottie; the pathetic mark with the annoying voice that Charlie bets Bobby can’t nail. In the first act, she’s barely one-dimensional. But in the second act, she fills out, asked to portray it all: feminine hope, feminine fear, feminine need, feminine sex. Then, in the third, she’s brutally reduced to one dimension again. In fact, Karen is reduced so ruthlessly, so logically, that the audience will be at risk of coming to the same conclusion as the men in the play. But don’t give in, you p***ies. Mamet is just f***ing with you.
It’s business time.
Speed-the-Plow runs through October 14 at the Jungle Theater.