‘A play is poetry with different voices.’ — David Mamet
In Bitter Wheat, currently playing at London’s Garrick Theatre, John Malkovich commands the stage, as he screeches, slumbers, yells, threatens, cajoles, and connives his way to a largely befuddled public. Barney Fein, the bloated man he depicts, is not an exact portrayal of the beleaguered Harvey Weinstein, rather the sum of his cruel parts. Malkovich portrays Fein at the nadir of his depraved existence. David Mamet, the prodigious writer and director of Bitter Wheat, pieces together a viscerally arresting play that spares no one, and compromises nothing.
The greatness of Mamet as an artist is that he remains thirsty: thirsty for good, topical content, thirsty for truth, and thirsty for dramatic understanding of the human condition. In a recent Jewish Community Center interview, Mamet said, “So how do you get the sound of running water to stop? I write stuff down. And it piles up… Sometimes in the midst of hating myself for being unproductive, I’ll pick up something and say, ‘what the hell is this?’ Oh maybe, I’ll work on that for a while.”
While Mamet may like to deadpan his literary accomplishments, his theatrical work speaks volumes as America’s preeminent writer. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of twenty-three plays, and screenwriter of eighteen films including The Verdict and The Untouchables, Mamet’s reputation for rapid-fire dialogue and exploration of power relationships and corruption, remains unequaled by any living American dramatist. “So, that’s all a drama is – a succession of interchanges that logically lead one to the next – each containing the setup for which we suspend our disbelief,” he adds.
“David hears the music so he’ll let you sing, but he wants to beat out the rhythm,” adds Doon Mackichan who plays Sondra in Bitter Wheat. Sondra “is the main character’s long term personal assistant – a wing woman who has facilitated some bad things. She’s a gatekeeper who’s slowly been changed by the business. So our characters represent total innocence versus ossified cynicism.”
“[Mamet’s] definitely not dictatorial but he does stop you from indulging,” says Ionna Kimbook who plays Yung Kim Lee, an aspiring Eurasian actress who is sexually assaulted by Fein. “It’s important to [Mamet] that you say the words correctly and he wants you to trust that that’s enough. It’s been fascinating learning about the ‘trenches of Hollywood,’ as David refers to it.”
In Bitter Wheat, Mamet points his finger directly at screwed up social mores, rather than solely on Fein. It’s a celebrity-obsessed, hypocritical, and shallow one that allows a brute like Fein — or someone like Harvey Weinstein – to succeed, and just as swiftly, be dropped by a drifting cultural milieu.
While Malkovich physically controls the stage – Fein’s fatness is unmistakable, and so are his baggy black pants – it’s within his imitable diction that largely makes for a most remarkable performance. It is noticeable, in that, he seems to deliver his dialogue all in one breath. “This piece of s#$# you call a screenplay… your script’s a piece of s#$#,” yells Fein, before shifting to self-pity:
“Do you attempt to defraud me? I say you’ve attempted to defraud me.”
“Do you want to learn something you idiot??… You owe me a second draft with revisions!”
“F-You! Get lost!”
“People will watch s$# if they know it makes them feel better!”
Bitter Wheat is a ruthless indictment of the entertainment industry, yet speaks more to the decay of western values. For all of Fein’s cruelty, he remains a self-pitying and tragic figure held up by a jungle-like society.
“Because I’m fat!!… Being overweight doesn’t get you any sympathy. Now I have no friends… I am a lost boy, a little boy, an actual Jewish orphan!”
“25 women came out,” Sondra reminds Fein of his crimes.
“Didn’t we buy them off?” he responds before going into a diatribe likening himself to Napoleon, even Hitler. “Everyone wants a statement, I will give them a statement.”
Malkovich began his career as actor and director and original member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Bitter Wheat, surprisingly, reflects his first collaboration with Mamet. The brilliant thespian devours the playwright’s words throughout it, giving a funny, strikingly manipulative, strident, forceful, and purposefully nagging performance as Fein. The play, to its credit, also achieves the Brechtian – alienating – effect on its audience, as they too must absorb Fein’s manipulative bullying. Bitter Wheat is a brilliant addition not just to Mamet’s canon, but also to modern theatre. It is unsparing and unforgettable.