David Mamet’s new play, we are assured, is fiction and any resemblance to living persons is “entirely coincidental”. Given that the protagonist is an overweight movie tycoon ruined by accusations of sexual misconduct, coincidence clearly has a long arm.
Leaving aside its origins, what is dismaying is the clumsiness of the satire on manipulative moguls: despite the formidable presence of John Malkovich, the play offers the rare spectacle of Mamet punching below his weight.
We first see the hero, Barney Fein (rhymes with Weinstein), insulting and defrauding a screenwriter who turns on him and says: “You’re an evil man.” That seems an all-too-accurate description of a character whose venality knows no depths. Coveting an award for humanitarian services to film, Fein attempts to buy off an allegedly recalcitrant juror by offering him a night with a Eurasian starlet, Yung Kim Li. But when Fein himself, thwarted by a prospective date and pumped up with a sexually activating drug, meets Li, he makes a bungling attempt at seduction which leads to a court case, revelations of serial abuse and the collapse of his empire.
One problem is that Mamet has already harpooned Hollywood in the vastly superior Speed-the-Plow, which exposed the homosocial ethos of a male-dominated industry.
But the main reason why this play is so ineffectual is that the hero is unrelievedly vicious. Lacking the diabolical charisma of a Richard III or the glib smoothness of a Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses – a part Malkovich famously played – he simply comes across as a power-addicted predator of bottomless cynicism. Asked about the function of movies, his PA says: “we’re merchandising dreams”, to which Fein retorts “We’re laundering money.” Padded out round the middle, Malkovich appears mildly paunchy. Fein’s protestations that he is unloved because he’s fat do nothing to kindle our sympathy.
Fine actor though he is, Malkovich has to work overtime to invest a character who claims “people are animals” with any light and shade. He snickers maliciously and approaches Li like a snake about to swallow a rabbit. He also raises some wry smiles as when he seeks to tempt the aspiring Eurasian – who went to Cambridge and lives in Kent – with promised roles in a Korean Gone With the Wind or a gay version of Anne Frank. But, while Malkovich has shown in the past that he can humanise monsters, he can find little variety in a downright villain.
The best performance in Mamet’s production comes from Doon Mackichan, who invests Fein’s PA with an understated disdain, and Ioanna Kimbook plays Li with the right resilience. The remaining four roles are unbelievably thin and, although the play has a few flicks of wit, it is unlikely to arouse the fierce passions of a piece like Oleanna simply because there is only one side to the argument. Watching Mamet’s portrayal of the beastly Fein, I was reminded of the story of Harry Cohn who, when head of Columbia, would put a secretary in his chair and allow her, as a Christmas present, to fire anyone at whom she pointed. No fiction, as Mamet’s play proves, can ever quite match the hideousness of Hollywood reality.