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"SPEED-THE-PLOW," the dark little comedy by David Mamet, is perhaps best-known to the public as the vehicle that gave us the Madonna of Broadway.

It is, in the best traditions of the stage, a retelling of a hero's mythic journey in a contemporary voice, complete with ripping vulgarities. It describes a brief and failed odyssey of a member of the consuming class to a land beyond the golden fleece.

The production at the Studio Arena Theatre, directed by Kathryn Long, is as slick as a good wax job. Although the actors in some instances don't fully embody their archetypes, Mamet excels as a storyteller, and the words that come out of their mouths shape not only their individual conflicts but that of our specific culture, and perhaps every culture sooner or later.

Although commonly referred to as a tale of two friends and the woman who comes between them, "Speed the Plow" is, in a broader sense, the story of a man torn between two possibilities -- one that rises up like mammon before him and another that probes the recesses of his soul.

The powers of the sky god, "production," big bucks, are represented by Charlie Fox, played here with earnestness and controlled hysteria by James Gleason. The unlikely spirit-guide to the underworld, the gatekeeper and Earth mother is Karen, the attractive temptress, played by Melissa Weil.

Bobby Gould (played by Jim Mezon) is a producer torn between two possible scripts. One is a sure-fire blood-and-guts money-making vehicle for a committed "big star." The other is a metaphysical abstraction that presumably would help the audience to transcend fear of death.

The positing of one possibility against the other is simultaneously hilarious and awful. Our sympathies are first with Charlie, the "loyal friend" who finally gets a chance to make it big. Then there's Karen, pretty and wise and maybe a bit manipulative (Mamet actually never lets us know for sure), whose earnestness yanks Bobby out of the trenches of the macho moment and sends him spinning, enlightened, in the opposite direction.

If Karen's vested interest in the outcome is unclear, Charlie's is not. Mamet turns him from longtime pal into a violent, cruel and greedy foe -- a man who screams "witch," "whore," "broad" and much worse in order to protect his stake in the picture Bobby has agreed to "green-light." Bobby, his star-buddy, is a "sissy," a "fool," a "wimp" when Charlie's meal ticket is seriously threatened.

As Bobby, Mezon seems altogether too nice a guy to be here in the first place. His conversion by Karen seems too plausible to be the minor miracle it must be if the tragedy inherent in the comedy is to be fully realized.

Mamet's violent barrage of rapid-fire verbiage does not spill easily from Mezon, and as a "type," his edges are not as brittle as the dialogue suggests. On the other hand, he seems sincerely troubled in Act 2 and appropriately stunned in Act 3 by the events that have transpired here.

Gleason, on the other hand, is perfectly cast as the try-harder guy who makes up in manic energy what he has been denied in the way of natural charm and corporate ease. He gives a terrifying and wrackingly funny performance, squeezing every drop of glibness, pathos and just plain nastiness out of the fox. In the end it's Gleason who is largely responsible for the conflict we feel as he hauls Bobby out the door and away from the possibility of intimacy, renewal or maybe just a bad career move.

Karen is not a fully developed character (if she was, no one would have cast the untutored Madonna in the part on Broadway). She isn't just a "toon," though, and in Act 2, gets to say more than "Sir?" and "Bobby?" Hers is the intuitive realm -- the dark, the flesh -- and whether she is innocent of greedy intent or not, this is where she works her nighttime magic.

Mamet's truncated and sometimes symbolic dialogue, which works so well between the guys, seems abrupt and out of place here in the shadows, but in her many tiny monologues, Weil manages to convey something deeply felt by the character, if not by the actress herself. Perhaps she hasn't been given the words with which to adequately express the intensity required in this pivotal conversion scene.

Well, this is a play, so Bobby "gets it" anyway and becomes the man mesmerized by something (revelation? lust? love?) for a moment before being slapped to his senses by another guy come daybreak. Again, Gleason's character is the only one here aware of being driven by self-preservation. The befuddlement of the other two at being thrust again into the "real" world of corporate America is intended and effective.

It sounds a bit grim, eh? Well, Mamet's pen is sharp and pointed, but there are many laughs in "Speed-the-Plow" as well as the terrible and repeated thrill of self-recognition throughout. As shaman of the Gimme Tribe, the playwright has mastered the lingo of the deal, the pitch, the yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it, I got it. As in "Glengarry Glen Ross," he laughs us up to the mirror that reflects our self-contempt and barely concealed loathing of the meaningless pursuit.

Performances continue at the Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St., Tuesdays through Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 5 and 9, Sundays at 2 and 7, through Feb. 11.

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