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July 20 2019
John Malkovich as Barney Fein and Ioanna Kimbook as Yung Kim Li (behind her, Doon Mackichan as Sondra) in Bitter Wheat, at the Garrick Theatre, London, June 2019.

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.

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