Theatre review: Bitter Wheat

David Mamet's latest play disappoints our critic John Nathan


My assumptions were wrong about David Mamet’s take on the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I had thought that the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, who swam so boldly against the tide of political correctness with his play Oleanna, would find a way of discomforting the consensus on Weinstein and his — mostly still alleged, let us not forget — crimes against women.

But actually this comedy, brimful of Mamet’s trademark savage dialogue, swims with public opinion in a way that make you wonder why Mamet — who also directs — would expend so much effort to confirm the opinions of his audience rather than challenging them.

The villain of his new play is movie mogul Barney Fein, played with inhumane charisma by John Malkovich. Fein is overweight, has a face full of grey stubble, treats people as badly as he possibly can and is Jewish. Quite how this mother’s son came to be this way, however, is never explored however.

He may be called Barney, but the name in your head is Harvey. So what Mamet delivers is exactly what we expect from Weinstein’s reputation. And that is a problem.

We first encounter Barney in his office eviscerating a screenwriter for the “sh*t” script which the writer has delivered. The screenplay is bad enough to withhold payment, yet not bad enough to return.

The next sees Barney and his world-weary assistant Sondra, a deadpan Doon Mackichan, plan his fake surprise for an award he is about to receive for making the world a better place. It is an exchange that involves a litany of the kind of bribes and manipulation that made Barney the man he is today — an unremittingly ruthless bully who has a black hole where his moral compass might be.

And so it goes, one example of unforgivable behaviour after another, culminating in the way we all know it must, with Barney attempting to impose his Viagra-fuelled libido onto a young starlet.

Malkovich and Mamet’s portrait of an amoral man is entertaining and strewn with the savage dialogue that makes Mamet one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. Yet this work feels half-written and rushed, and so one-dimensional that the figure at the core of the play ultimately becomes a bit of a bore.

You could forgive the clunky plot as a deliberately jalopy of a vehicle that serves satire well. But satire works best when the target is a society, an industry or a culture rather than an individual. Take Mamet’s brilliant Speed-the-Plow (1988), in which the moral deficit at the heart of Hollywood is witheringly exposed. There is no such insight here. Barney is a one man horror show whose company we eventually tire of. Nobody wants his behaviour to be excused, but a better play would have revealed the human behind the headlines.

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