In that play, first seen in 1992, an admittedly insensitive college professor’s career and life are wrecked by the woman pupil who has unjustly accused him of sexual exploitation. It was a genuinely provocative piece, so much so that Mamet later recalled fist-fights between members of the audience and, one night in Cambridge, Mass., an entire row of Harvard professors standing up and booing what they saw as a politically incorrect attack on feminism.
Well, shrugging silence is a more likely response to Bitter Wheat, which last night brought John Malkovich back to the West End stage after decades away. Even those who think a man should not be addressing such a difficult and painful subject—and Mamet has sometimes been accused of macho display and even of sexism—will have to admit that his play is unobjectionable.
It is certainly all too clear that he despises Weinstein, the thinly disguised but thickly caricatured object of his unrelenting satire. At any rate, he regards Malkovich’s Barney Fein, his sex-obsessed movie mogul, as a monster impure and pretty simple.
Nor has Mamet anything but sympathy for the one woman, an English actress of Korean descent, we see Fein trying to seduce. There’s nothing remotely misogynistic in a play that is in effect advocacy for #MeToo.
It is all highly topical, given current reports of an embattled Weinstein falling out with just about everyone, including the lawyers supposed to represent him at his trial this fall. But what else?
The play has been billed as a comedy, even a farce, but there wasn’t much laughter at the Garrick last night. Unsurprisingly so, since Mamet’s writing isn’t at its sharpest. And what’s so funny about a very bad man falling apart, as Fein has virtually done by the close?
The opening scene brings reminders of his far funnier Speed the Plow, which embodied all Mamet’s feelings about a Hollywood he saw as a black hole that reduced to anti-matter all sucked into it.
Malkovich’s Fein, paunchy and contemptuous, is refusing to pay a writer the promised $200,000 for a screenplay he calls a “piece of shit”. “You’re an evil man” comes the response. “What you going to do, curse me?” comes back Fein, and off the writer goes, impotently saying “I hope all the bad things in the world happen to you.”
Well, indeed they do, soon after Malkovich’s Fein has revealed yet more of his moral character by refusing to attend either his mother’s birthday party or a charity dinner in aid of illegal immigrants and declaring that “people are animals, you find out what they eat, and when they come you shoot them”.
A doctor appears, shooting serum into his bottom, giving him pills that sound like Viagra-plus and generally preparing him for the sexual fray, which duly occurs in the next scene.
Here’s the nub of the play. Already we’ve seen how much Fein depends on carrots and sticks, bribes and threats, slimy promises and blunt bullying Now he turns his manipulative skills on Ioanna Kimbook”s Yung Kim Li, who has just arrived on a 27-hour flight from Seoul, exhausted and hungry but hoping he’ll film the screenplay she calls Dark Water.
He alternately tempts and browbeats her: denying her food, demanding she change the movie’s name to an inexplicable Bitter Wheat, saying he’ll make her a star. Why, she could be a new Audrey Hepburn, perhaps in Asian remakes of Gone with the Wind or Anne Frank.
Li falls asleep, then awakes to find Fein undoing her blouse and asking for a massage on the grounds that he’s unwell. Then the ogre comes fully into the open. Could she please give him oral sex? Might he tie her to a chair while she watches him masturbate? And down go the lights in his eyrie for a short interval in what’s actually a pretty short play.
Perhaps too short, given a final scene that takes the story further but not the character deeper. Li has presumably exposed the would-be rapist. Awards are being sent back. Women have brought accusations. The authorities are building a case against him. His company has collapsed.
In a bizarre twist, his mother has been shot by an illegal immigrant in a department store while returning the scarf his secretary has sent her as his birthday present. All is self-pity—he’s an orphan, he’s fat, he was “a god, Napoleon or Hitler, though much more benign”—interrupted by yet more foul-mouthed bluster.
Is there anything, anything at all, to be said for a character whose name all too obviously part-rhymes with Harvey Weinstein? Well, he continues to have sympathy for illegal immigrants, despite or perhaps because of his mother’s murder.
But Mamet can find no good word for his films. “We’re marketing dreams,” declares Doon Mackichan as his long-suffering PA, thinking of all the feelgood movies he’s produced. “No, we’re laundering money,” he admits in a rare moment of honesty.
Even when he jumps onto the window ledge, threatening to throw himself out, his last words are to ask his survivors to tell his children that their mother is “a cunt”. That’s supposedly a farcical moment, but all I wished was that he’d actually defenestrate himself.
As it is, Kimbook’s sweet, gentle Li implausibly reappears, intimating mildly that she’s no longer happy about being alive. And soon afterwards the curtain falls on a play that, to those who (with me) regard Mamet’s American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross as masterpieces, is disappointing except in one respect. That’s the performance at the center.
All the other characters are so underwritten the play might almost be a monologue, but at least Malkovich makes it a watchable monologue. Never offstage, he adds a sort of corpulent charisma to Fein’s unremitting awfulness. He bulges, he lumbers about, he sneers, he delivers his cynicism in the most soothing of voices, he exudes power even when brought low, and, which isn’t always the case with American actors, he’s not afraid to be hateful. There’s only one good reason to see Bitter Wheat: him.