Reviewed – 19th June 2019
“a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances”
“Nobody minded bad behaviour as long as the public didn’t get to hear about it” Louis B. Mayer once told his young star, Mickey Rooney. Since the birth of Hollywood this has been a truism, sustaining the myth of the movie mogul as profane, vulgar, cruel, rapacious and philandering. The only real change these days is that the public does get to hear about it more and more. There is currently one name that everybody will no doubt associate with Barney Fein, the sleaze-ball producer masterfully played by John Malkovitch in David Mamet’s “Bitter Wheat”. But Mamet’s writing points the finger at a longer line of tycoons to produce an amalgam which adds more dimensions to the character. Malkovitch seizes this opportunity to add humour and human traces. But never sympathy.
Nobody escapes the machine-gun fire of Fein’s vitriol that turns to lasciviousness when he meets young actress, Yung Kim Li, to discuss her new film. He promises stardom, and we all know in return for what, especially as he has just had a high dose of a libido-enhancing drug that is just kicking in. Ioanna Kimbook catches on just as quickly with an impressive portrayal of the ingénue’s growing discomfort. It’s in this scene that Mamet’s wit really shines through, with faux-pas in abundance that soon take a darker turn when the inevitable career defining threat arrives.
Sadly, neither character comes out of this well. Nor does the second act which seems to be racing towards its rather farcical conclusion. Naturally, when the police are brought in Fein’s life falls apart. But the actress’ career is destroyed too, before it has started. Fein’s long-suffering secretary is also out of a job. Doon Mackichan downplays the contempt she feels for Fein perfectly – pitching it just right: high enough to be recognised but low enough to avoid the counterattack.
The subplots and sub characters that are tagged onto this central story seem unnecessary. An illegal immigrant who assassinates Fein’s terminally ill mother serves little purpose. The opening scene of the play, on the other hand, in which Fein refuses to pay a screenwriter his due fee is underexplored and unceremoniously discarded. It is in these moments that we are given a stronger insight into the psyche of the extraordinary character that is Barney Fein; and into the machinations of Hollywood. There is a quirkiness to the dialogue that is unmatched by the predictability of the sexual assault headlines.
Overall though, this is a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances. Mamet manages to display his usual, exhilarating and unique flair with words, tackling an uncomfortable subject. If anything, however, the humour makes it all a bit too comfortable and doesn’t necessarily advance the issues it is addressing. In this case truth is stranger than fiction.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Garrick Theatre until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue: