With two starry revivals of David Mamet’s plays within the last eighteen months, for lovers of his work the prospect of an entirely new play should be an exciting one. Yet Bitter Wheat comes preloaded with controversy for its focus on a Harvey Weinstein-like character set in a sexist and misogynistic Hollywood world. Long before a single line of the play had been seen, Twitter was alight with indignation at the prospect of the first major #MeToo play focusing on the perpetrator of numerous sexual misconduct allegations and written by a male playwright. But protesters were right to be wary because Bitter Wheat is not only frustratingly irresponsible in its treatment of these events, it is also a poorly constructed drama.
David Mamet is deservedly a writer of great renown, producing work that has carefully dissected aspects of the post-war USA while shining a light on the substantial distance between the glittering American dream and the fractured reality it engenders. Mamet’s skill and fascination as a dramatist has been in the skewering of American masculinity, adrift in an era without purpose and the combative structures men have consequently create for themselves in their working and social lives to distract from the essential emptiness and futility of modern living. Deep in their psyche, his urban-based characters yearn for the pastoral simplicity of rural America, an almost romantic longing to connect with the land as a representation of a happier past – not dissimilar to the romantic poets’ rejection of industrialisation and love for the soul-enhancing force of the British countryside. Mamet’s men are in the void between their aspirations and the far uglier reality that truly awaits them.
In a similar vein, his work has always spoken to American social values, of its belief in personal achievement, family and success as the markers of a life well lived. So much post-1945 US literature and art has sought to debunk the essential falsity of these aspirations and expose the dark underbelly of a society pursing them at all cost. Mamet has so brilliantly shown how the commodification of the American Dream has resulted in the soulless destruction of the very society it sought to create and the obsession that many of his characters have with status objects, demonstrations of corporate power, money and fame are redolent of the fundamental weakness underlying modern masculinity in Mamet’s view. We see this clearly in the two brothers of True West (recently revived with Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn at the Vaudeville), one clinging to the conventions and conveniences of his domestic prison, the other longing for the vast openness and freedom of the desert. Likewise, American Buffalo – revived in 2015 with Damian Lewis and John Goodman – is concerned with shifting power dynamics among three friends confined within a junk shop, an all too metaphorical representation of the modern American state.
But nowhere are these ideas more purposefully and successfully explored than in Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross, one of the truly great plays of the twentieth-century. Forcefully revived by Sam Yates at the Playhouse Theatre with Christian Slater and recast in 2019 for a superb UK tour, Mamet’s world of aggressive salesman, adversarial business practice and – in a direct link to Arthur Miller’s Willy Lowman – the desperation of the ageing star player losing his touch. 35-years on the play retains every bit of its punch. What makes Bitter Wheat so frustrating and disappointing is that it does none of these things, taking a narrative approach that detaches the action from its wider context, leaving it almost nothing to say.
The central role of Barney Fein is undoubtedly a terrible one, he’s dismissive, entitled, rude, forgetful and entirely without conscience or remorse. Whether he is belittling his mother’s funeral or demanding a newly-married (and unseen) woman visit his hotel room for sex, Fein is a monstrous creation. But, outside of panto, that is insufficient to sustain a 90-minute drama when the psychology of the man and the wider surroundings that both create and facilitate his behaviour remain entirely unexplored. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Ricky Roma et al’s venality is equally obvious but that better constructed drama shows clearly how the target-driven nature of the firm and the toxic culture of 80s America with is status-driven commercial obsessions infiltrate the walls of the office and underscore these characters. In Bitter Wheat, the empty rooms of Fein’s office and hotel suite suggest nothing beyond, Mamet gives us no proper context and instead allows his character to exist almost wholly unchallenged throughout the play.
Mamet’s mistake is to place Fein at the centre of the drama without ever properly exploring how this man was created or how the fear and inattention of others silently justified and permitted his behaviour. John Malkovich’s Fein is a moral void but all Mamet does here is tell a story without truly understanding or exposing the mechanics of his abuse. Turning Bitter Wheat into a comedy means it lacks proper analysis and any serious attempt to untangle why such men have operated unchecked for so long. Crucially, we never understand how the longer-term impact of these experiences have affected the people most involved – the victims.
Fein is surrounded by a handful of characters who have next to nothing to do including two thinly sketched female roles and an extended staff who pad-out his world, procuring and enabling his whims. Yet the focus on Fein means the entire play lacks any real danger or consequence, so it may be creepy when he corners a young female actor in a hotel room promising her a number of film projects, but with much of the encounter played for laughs the whole tenor of the production is destabilised.
Having taken a Viagra tablet and let down by his married mistress (or other unspecified kind of companion – and Mamet takes no time to explain this absent woman’s status, she is just for sex) Fein manipulates and attempts to manoeuvre his pray into sleeping with him. A stuck zipper and a time-sensitive predicament anticipating his imminent engorgement are made farcical – here is a man who needs to have sex struggling with his trousers and trying to encourage the women in the room to service his needs – hilarious no?
What is even more disturbing about this scenario is the audience reaction which on different nights has included widespread guffawing at this and several other examples of Fein’s dismissive and damaging behaviour. Some are the nervous giggles of an audience confronted by emotional responses they cannot process, but the intention is to provoke genuine amusement at a scene in which a powerful man is about to coerce or potentially even rape a young woman. That Mamet constructs this as a comedy scene is truly disturbing, disgusting even, and such attempts to normalise this behaviour have allowed it to go undetected and unchallenged for decades if not centuries. There is a lightness to Mamet’s approach that not only fails to fully expose the indecency of Fein’s behaviour but also sells short the #MeToo experience under the guise of “black comedy”. Rather than exposing them, Bitter Wheat does much to reinforce these behaviours by badging them as harmless fun.
Compare this to how carefully and intelligently James Graham deconstructed the personality and influence of Rupert Murdoch in Ink which used its comedy sparingly and smartly to make its point. Graham not only managed to reframe our picture of the media mogul but also the birth of populism that has been a driving force of so much recent political activity. Setting his play in the late 1960s allowed Graham to show, without ever sympathising with or excusing him, how Murdoch’s early desire for innovation on Fleet Street was situated within his own rejection by the Establishment and how quickly The Sun creators lost control of the wave of egalitarianism they tried to unleash.
Pointedly, Murdoch is a supporting player in a comedy drama that focuses on inaugural editor Larry Lamb, and while his overall influence runs through the play it is felt rather than seen. Mamet, by contrast, has given his drama nowhere to go by creating an artificial flatness which his own toothless direction does little to enliven. Across four sequential scenes the audience is shown a bad man saying (not actually doing) a variety of bad things which in the farcical construct that Mamet employs equate Fein’s racism, inhumanity and sexual misconduct as a bundle of personality traits that are almost excused or tempered by their existence as comic impulses. To misquote Posner in The History Boys, if you can laugh at something, you laugh it away, and Bitter Wheat’s fundamental issue is to construe Fein’s behaviour as inherently funny and too extreme to be truly credible without a rigorous analytical framework to question his activities such as Graham employs.
Adding to this misjudgement is the production’s general failure as a piece of theatre. Political considerations aside, building-up the protagonist comes at the expense of the other characters and very few meaningful exchanges take place outside of Fein’s self-absorbed and self-justifying monologuing – there’s not even the trademark Mamet rat-a-tat dialogue to entertain you. Primary support is provided by Doon Mackichan as Fein’s assistant Sondra with very few lines and Ioanna Kimbrook as a mistreated actor Yung Kim Li but neither role is properly fleshed-out or given a point of view. Mackichan’s role is particularly perplexing and whether Mamet intends her to be silently complicit in helping to facilitate his assaults or is herself a victim of his dismissive treatment remains unclear.
Kimbrook has more to do in first realising and then fending-off Fein’s unsubtle advances but a surface suggestion of personal agency is entirely devalued by the cipher role the character has in the play in which every line and every laugh is constructed for Fein. Kimbrook builds the role as much as she can but, ultimately, Yung Kim, Alexander Arnold’s second assistant Roberto and Teddy Kempner’s Doctor Wald all dance around the central figure with no obvious existence in their own right.
For Malkovich fans, the chance to see their hero on stage for the first time in more than 30-years will be irresistible and he delivers exactly the chilling, amoral performance the part requires. But the two-dimensional quality of the role makes it a very cerebral, studied performance from Malkovich, full of rehearsed gestures and intonation that feel too consciously formed. There is intimidation in his scenes with Kimbrook but the brutality and earthy hunger of the man able to take whatever he wants with no consequences never comes across. He’s never sympathetic but he’s never entirely real either.
Bitter Wheat is full of curious staging decisions which equally divest the drama of its purpose; between each of the three scenes in the first half a stark curtain abruptly comes down with no music or means to fill the interlude. Christopher Oram’s detailed set is very nice, a series of stylish rooms that fit Fein’s mode of living but the time taken to reset them drains energy from the production while Mamet’s direction never connects the dots so Bitter Wheat becomes a collection of scenarios with little forward-motion or sense of cause and effect. The overall result is disjointed and disappointingly flat and although a couple more previews may inject some chemistry, it’s hard to shake feeling that the play is entirely without purpose.
To argue that the play is told from Fein’s point of view and that the other characters are therefore his reflections is just not good enough in a self-badged #MeToo play. There are eventual consequences for Fein but they feel weak and unconvincing, so ultimately Bitter Wheat has nothing to say and entirely misses the point. It’s not that it’s too soon or even that a male playwright or a male experience shouldn’t be explored, but if they are, they need to be much smarter and more self-aware than this. Alas Bitter Wheat leaves a bitter taste.