David Mamet’s Harvey Weinstein-Inspired Play Opens in London

The play stars John Malkovich, is intended as a comedy

Bitter Wheat
John Malkovich in David Mamet's play "Bitter Wheat"
Bitter Wheat
By Tobias Carroll / June 8, 2019 12:26 pm

What happens when a playwright known for courting contentious subjects tackles a real-world example of power dynamics gone horribly wrong? Bitter Wheat is the latest play from David Mamet, and it began previews on Friday night at London’s Garrick Theatre. It stars John Malkovich as a character inspired by Harvey Weinstein — and, while abuses of power and trust are a frequent subject of Mamet’s work, the fact that this is a comedy might set off some readers’ alarm bells.

Based on a New York Post report from the production, Mamet has neither conveyed Weinstein’s abuses of power on the stage nor delivered a compelling theatrical work.

Writing for the Post, Johnny Oleksinski described the play, in which Malkovich plays a mogul named Barney Fein, as deeply flawed in its concept and execution — starting from the fact that the play is a comedy. “Mamet wants you to have a laugh about one of the most infamous workplace monsters of our time,” Oleksinski writes. Later, he delves into this element of the play even more:

Fein is disgusting but charismatic, and Mamet plays his antics for laughs. It’s a tone-deaf treatment of Weinstein, whose alleged sexual misconduct against innumerable women instigated the #MeToo movement.

In 2008, Mamet — whose plays beforehand had critiqued elements of American society and capitalism — declared that he now identified as a conservative. A number of his works since then have delved into hot-button sociopolitical topics, including the plays Race and The Anarchist, as well as his 2013 HBO film Phil Spector.

But even before Mamet’s very public ideological conversion, the politics of his work could be difficult to glean: consider this New York Times review of his 1992 play Oleanna, about a student who accuses her professor of sexual harassment. “If it is hard to argue with Mr. Mamet’s talent, it is also hard to escape his tendency to stack the play’s ideological deck,” wrote critic Frank Rich. Later in the same review, Rich noted that “Mr. Mamet’s sympathies often seem to reside with the defendant.”

Whether or not Bitter Wheat ends up going down in history as a misfire in Mamet’s career, it seems likely that this London production will not be its last high-profile staging. A New York Times report on the play notes that its producer has brought several of Mamet’s plays to Broadway. And it ends with a potentially ominous prediction about the play’s future: “You’d be foolish to bet against it transferring” to Broadway.

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