Expounding on the concept of free enterprise, one of the junk-shop philosophes in David Mamet’s magnificent American Buffalo (1975) explains it this way: “The freedom … of the Individual … to Embark on Any Fucking Course he sees fit.” He adds: “Without this we’re just savage shitheads in the wilderness. Sitting around some vicious campfire.” No modern playwright understands the anarchy and the exhaustion of American individualism better than Mamet, who is a connoisseur of the craven.
In his new play, Bitter Wheat, which is having its debut on London’s West End, Mamet’s latest savage shithead is the obese mogul Barney Fein, a behemoth of barbarity who prowls the wilderness of Hollywood, a terrain which, as a screenwriter and film director, Mamet knows like the back of his hand. The character is a haphazard brass rubbing of the disgraced Harvey Weinstein and follows the outline of his now infamous traumatizing narcissism: the bullying, the bombast, the molesting, the mendacity, the shamelessness, and the collapse of empire. “You’re evil,” a defrauded screenwriter says to Fein in the opening minutes of the play, a judgment from which there is no redemption for Fein and no relief for the audience.
A Holiday from Righteousness
Mamet, who is 71, still likes to play the enfant terrible; Bitter Wheat has drawn down scuttles of hot coals on his crew-cut head: “Monstrous misfire” (The Guardian); “A bitter disappointment” (The Telegraph); “Really, what is the point?” (Time Out); “Rancid smell of click bait” (the Evening Standard). But on the marquee outside the theater, it’s not the outraged critics but the satisfied customers whose encomiums are mostly emblazoned on the billboards of the Garrick Theatre, where the play’s limited sold-out run has been extended until mid-September.
Why the clashing differences of opinion? The critics haven’t misread the play’s flaws—Mamet has mined this Hollywood seam far better in Speed-the-Plough (1988)—but they’ve misread the Zeitgeist. A play is a gossamer thing; even a hodgepodge can succeed if it somehow taps into the collective unconscious of the paying customers. Nowadays, in fractious and fragmented Great Britain, between the Brexiters, the Remainers, the MeTooers, and the L.G.B.T.-ers, the air is thick with the ecstasy of sanctimony. So, no matter how clumsy Bitter Wheat’s jerry-built structure, and how brutal Fein’s acid thoughts, to spend 90 minutes with a virtuoso of venality like John Malkovich, who plays Fein, is for many a refreshing holiday from righteousness.
A play is a gossamer thing; even a hodgepodge can succeed if it somehow taps into the collective unconscious of the paying customers.
In the theater foyer, as a sort of epigram to the evening, Mamet, who is also the director, has placed a yellow placard with a quote from Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), reminding the public that out of bad company and salacious language “something may be learned.”
The literary inspiration of Fein’s voluptuary itch, however, seems to go back even further than Defoe to Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) and Sir Epicure Mammon, his great gourmandizing comic creation, who dreams of bedding 50 succubae a night and of an elixir to make him as potent as Hercules. (Fein’s particular elixir turns out to be an injection into his broad backside that gives him a 30-minute window of priapic opportunity.) Mammon’s greed is full of wonder; Fein’s obsessive lust, by contrast, is a joyless pursuit of domination, where power, not pleasure, is the real turn-on. Here, Mamet gleefully lets libido run riot in the arena. For the British audience, the spectacle of Fein setting upon his minions with his lacerating wit recalls the cruelty of the bear pit as much as the civility of the playhouse. One way or another, blood will be spilled.
The play is dedicated to Malkovich, who is an eloquent messenger of Mamet’s particular coruscating music. “What are we doing here?” Malkovich asks his secretary, a rhetorical question about his company, Find a Light Films.
“We’re ‘merchandising dreams,’” she says.
“We’re laundering money,” he counters, a sour zinger that brings the house down and sidesteps the gnarly fact of Weinstein’s acumen as a producer of many first-rate films.
A tall man, with a craggy lupine face, Malkovich, even decked in a fat suit, has a strangely graceful feline presence—alert, solitary, braced. The wariness he brings onstage makes him at once droll and dangerous. You can’t take your eyes off him, which is a good thing on this occasion because there’s really little else to see. His combination of percolating disdain and Waspish eloquence give the jazz of Mamet’s vulgate a piquant swing. At curtain rise, for instance, when the bilked screenwriter calls Fein a “fat kike rug merchant,” Malkovich smiles back with cold teeth: “Yes, use your words to wound me. I’m hurt and I’m going to cry. All the way down to the Heliport, and fly out to my boat to drown my grief in a Russian hooker, while you take the E train, to Brooklyn and eat kelp.”
You can’t take your eyes off Malkovich, which is a good thing on this occasion because there’s really little else to see.
Fein is the kind of Hollywood goniff who’d steal your stove and come back for the smoke. The play begins with a theft, and stealing is the key to Fein’s pathology. He is a con man, a species of Homo sapiens whom Mamet has documented perhaps better than any living dramatist. Here, although it’s a cartoon version of sexual abuse, Bitter Wheat has something to offer besides the pleasure of indignation.
For purposes that have to do with the folderol of the plot—a unanimous committee vote required for Fein to win the first-ever Oversees Press Association’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, which in fact he’s sponsored—Fein has to serve up to a wavering African committee member the Korean star of Dark Water, a film he owns and plans to release as Bitter Wheat. Yung Kim Li, the Asian actress, is just off a 27-hour flight from Seoul, and she’s hungry. Most of the play is a game of Little Red Riding Hood, with the fetching, Cambridge-educated actress (played by Ioanna Kimbook) politely asking the Big Bad Wolf for food, while the slavering Wolf is preparing to make her the meal.
In this pas de deux of predation, Fein inevitably begins by promising to make the Asian beauty a star, dangling a remake of Gone with the Wind set in Korea, an improbable pitch that ends with Fein just as improbably asking for a massage. “You’re Korean and you can’t give a massage?” he says when she demurs.
The con man’s sadism is played out mostly over the food. “I’d like some fish,” says Yung Kim Li, who doesn’t eat meat. “We’ll get your fish sent up,” Fein says, maneuvering her upstairs to meet the company “team.” “You eat it, and we’ll put you in a car. What do you want to eat?” The actress keeps asking for dinner. Fein keeps reassuring her it’s coming, all the while zeroing in. When the meal finally arrives, it’s a turkey club. “Why did you say, ‘Bring her the sandwich’?” she asks. What’s acted out in Fein’s disregard of her desires is the objection of his prey. Fein never hears because he never listens; his conquering eyes are on the prize. For all the punctilio of his toxic palaver, the only needs Fein is aware of are his own. He is emptiness incarnate: a corrupted mind with a dead heart.
The way to undo shame is to tell the truth; the way to hide shame is to never tell the truth. And Fein never does. He’s a dervish of duplicity, lying outlandishly to others in Act I and, in Act II, after his sensational public exposure, to himself. “Was I, in part, brought to this end by my own sinfulness?” he asks Sondra, his loyal secretary, who, like Fein, is under indictment, for her collusion in his sexual misconduct. “SO FUCKING WHAT? SO WHAT? I WAS A GUY: LIKE NAPOLEON, LIKE HITLER, YES, THOUGH MUCH MORE BENIGN … ”
All the inciting incidents of Fein’s demise happen offstage, which makes a dog’s dinner of the second act. At the finale, having lost his wife, his mother, his company, his money, and his reputation, Fein is still working it, turning his degradation into a self-pitying riff to shake down the next guy through the door. “Please. Forgive me for all my sins. And for making: The Vegan—The Story of Hope,” he says to the newest mark, a wannabe screenwriter. The con man’s DNA is always to rob. Fein’s real erotic charge, that compulsive thing which accounts for his ruthlessness even in the face of total disaster, is the sadistic excitement of winning trust and then betraying it.
Always Rambunctious Company
A skeptic by nature, Mamet believes that faith is nice but doubt gets you an education. “Trust everyone, but cut the cards,” he is fond of saying. In our present adamantine moment, it is possible to hate Weinstein, but it is not possible to think about him. He has been vanished. “We really didn’t need a Harvey Weinstein play, written by a man and from a male perspective.” Time Out’s opinion will have to stand for many other virulent critical refusals to think. The fine filigree of Mamet’s laughter sufficiently disarms an audience of their disgust that it can begin to see the wound underneath Fein’s fierce full-court press. At one point, with his prey eluding him, Fein unleashes on Yung Kim Li a tsunami of humiliating sophistry:
“Don’t you fuckin start with me, I have the greatest respect for women. But ‘women’ are fuckin PEOPLE. Which means they’re stupid. Stupid … You want to be the Asian Audrey Hepburn. I say, ‘Okay,’ what do you say, ‘Thanks,’ but don’t expect me to KICK BACK. ONE BLOW JOB, you would rather die? Is it because I’m fat? … ”
Getting nowhere, Fein pivots from belligerence to self-pity, projecting onto Yung Kim Li all of the unacceptable, indigestible things about himself. “I reach out, for simple human warmth, from a colleague and what do I get, ‘Fuck you, you obese KIKE, I’d rather die than have your stinking white dick in my mouth,’” he says, adding, “How does that make ME feel? Do you care? What I’ve gone through, ‘looking like this.’ Or my desires.”
What emerges out of the secret ambush of Fein’s wall of words, at once awful and alienated, is a sense of the nihilism behind his mad desire. Fein, and by extension Weinstein, must compulsively seek submission because he can’t win surrender. At his core, he feels unlovable.
For better or worse, Mamet has established himself as an iconoclast; his job description is to think against received opinion. This makes him always rambunctious company. Although his most recent plays have fallen far short of his high standard, it would be foolish to count him out. Even here, in this botched effort, you have to admire his gift and his chutzpah. Mamet is enough of a supremo to know that he’s painted himself into a theatrical corner, and enough of a con man to keep the audience distracted while picking their pockets.
John Lahr is a co-author of the play Elaine Stritch at Liberty as well as a contributor to The New Yorker. He lives in London.