Stage Door: Speed-the-Plow, Saturn Returns

05/25/2011 12:55 pm ET

Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet's nod to Hollywood's ruthlessness, boasts his famous rat-tat-tat speed, racy dialogue and sharp insights into the movie business. But this revival at the Barrymore Theater belongs to Raul Esparza, who plays the corporate version of second banana. From the moment he sets foot on stage, it's go time.

Esparza plays Charlie Fox, an executive who's been lapping at Bobby Gould's heels for years. Gould (William H. Macy), the studio's new head of production, gets to greenlight one picture a year without approval. And Fox has the goods: A blockbuster star gives him a day to put a deal together; and though he could have "walked across the street with it," he takes the prison flick to his old friend. (Macy replaced Jeremy Piven, the original Gould, who left the show early on due to illness.) Macy's performance is on target; he revels in his power and has real chemistry with Esparza.

Initially, the two are gleeful. Gould promises Fox his name above the title and producer status. Finally, after years on bended knee - and no one does craven longing better than Mamet - Fox can stand equal to the all-powerful Gould, a man he loves and hates in equal measure. We are businessmen, not artists, Gould explains. Our job is put "asses on seats." That's why he's ignoring the acclaimed radiation book his boss asked him to read. The degrading, but lucrative prison pic is in. Or is it? The decision hinges on an encounter Gould has with his secretary (Elisabeth Moss), who is pushing the heavy-handed treatise. Can she bamboozle a studio chief? Or will Fox outmaneuver her?

Since this is a Mamet play, users are aplenty. Everyone wants power - and betrayal is second-nature. Unfortunately, the playwright has a tough time according it to women, though the scenes between Esparza and Moss are potent. When the play launched in 1988, Madonna played the secretary. Her presence underscored the importance of celebrity, but she was slammed for a flat performance. Moss has the same trouble; it's not the actress; it's the limited role. In fact, the good vs. bad movie choice would be more persuasive if the arty film was a "Schindler's List" rather than a pretentious end-of-world scenario. Still, there is enough dramatic tension to keep audiences riveted, thanks to director Neil Pepe's taut pacing and some acidic sparring between the Hollywood pros. Esparza does Mamet proud.

Men and women's frayed relations are also the subject of Saturn Returns at Lincoln Center. The new play by Noah Haidle spans 60 years; the thrust is the miscues between the sexes and the fragility of connections. The name is a reference to the planet, which completes its orbit roughly every 30 years. Here, one man, seen as young, middle-aged and old, copes with an amputated life. His relations with his wife and daughter, which alter between poignant and clinging, are touching, and the pathos rings true. Of special note, John McMartin plays the senior man with gentle nuance, while Rosie Benton smoothly performs three different female roles.

Saturn Returns is a sensitive but sad play. That isn't a criticism, so much as a sober reality. Come prepared: Haidle is a good writer, and he understands human misery, but his characters' neediness make us uncomfortable, probably because their stories hit home.

Finally, for those who like their music and comedy with a wildly irreverent edge, check out Rob Tannenbaum and David Fagin performing Good for the Jews: Putting the Ha! in Hanukkah at the Highland Ballroom on Dec. 23. They sing about bar mitzvahs, JDate, Boca Raton and the plight of being Jewish during Christmas. Their work has been compared to Mel Brooks and Jon Stewart. Tannenbaum's song "It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas" appeared on the Now That Sounds Kosher CD and he helped John Leguizamo write his Broadway show Sexaholix. He's joined on stage by David Fagin, of the indie band The Rosenbergs; his songs have been heard on "Dawson's Creek" and "One Tree Hill." Fagin says he's touring with Tannenbaum "because Staples isn't hiring right now."