“David Mamet writes a Harvey Weinstein play.” That concept sells seats by virtue of nothing more than its mere utterance. Whether or not the play actually says anything interesting about Weinstein himself, or perhaps the larger #MeToo movement, is irrelevant. Mamet is a controversial playwright, and #MeToo is a controversial topic. Put the two together, so the reasoning must have went, and the sparks and heated conversations will fly.
Playwrights and theatremakers were always going to find ways to respond to #MeToo. This summer, two hours north of Mamet’s latest London premiere, the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-Upon-Avon is staging a new production of the Bard’s philosophical “problem play” Measure for Measure, which emphasizes a scene in the play wherein a man in power attempts to coerce a young nun-in-waiting into sex, with the promise that if she acquiesces he will pardon her brother, who has been sentenced to death. But of all the possible theatrical reactions to #MeToo, a Mamet-penned farce centering on a rotund movie mogul called Barney Fein (one imagines Mamet had to restrain himself from adding “stein” to the end of that name) is not one most could have predicted, let alone wanted. Yet here we are with Bitter Wheat, which premiered at the West End’s Garrick Theatre in June for a limited run through September.
Starring John Malkovich, who sports a fat suit beneath a wardrobe that barely attempts to conceal his character’s connection to Weinstein, Bitter Wheat is a lean, one hour and 50 minute comedy that does everything it can to make Fein look obscene. The curtain rises to reveal Fein berating a screenwriter, telling him that he refuses to pay for a screenplay for which the two entered into a contract. “The Screenwriter’s Guild would drink a beaker of my mucus if I asked them to,” Fein quips when the writer threatens legal action.
Much like Mamet’s last Broadway premiere, 2015’s middling quasi-one-man-show China Doll (starring Al Pacino), Bitter Wheat then seems to set up a drama whose conflicts center on the mundane daily agendas of the rich. Fein needs to buy his ageing mother a birthday present. Movies need to be made, and promising scripts found. There’s some sharp repartee between Fein and his right-hand woman, Sondra (Doon Mackichan), but very little in the way of stakes. That is, until a promising young British actress named Yung Kim Li (Ioanna Kimbook, in her first West End production) walks onto the stage.
Li stars in a film, Dark Water, which needs international distribution that Fein promises to bring. Right away – due largely to the audience’s knowledge that This is Definitely a Play About Harvey Weinstein – we know that Fein will want something in return for his promotion of the film. Fein first invites her over to a restaurant for dinner, but then continues through evasion to stall Li, exhausted after a 27-hour long flight, as she attempts to order food. He then suggests that they order the food up in his office after meeting with some of the others involved in the movie. Then, everyone leaves, and it’s just Fein and Li. What happens next is predictable, and regrettable – not just in the sense that what Fein tries to do is evil, but also in that the way Mamet chooses to go about this only says what has been tautological about Weinstein for some time: he’s a bad guy.
At the basic level of power maneuvers, Mamet does show some knowledge of how a predator like Weinstein might behave in a closed-door situation like this. Fein is never outright malicious up until the point that Li both acknowledges and calls out his harassment and attempted assault. He constantly shifts goalposts, at first saying he just wants her to eat since she’s hungry, but then wanting her to stick around to come up with ideas for marketing the movie. (The name of Mamet’s play gets its name from the fact that due to copyright reasons Dark Water must be re-titled, with Fein suggesting Bitter Wheat.)
Kimbook as Yung Kim Li, the lone redeeming thing about this play, masterfully exhibits the almost stoic demeanor that has been described by many sexual assault survivors, including those targeted by Weinstein. In this moment of assault, Li is calm, never raising her voice, never directly calling Fein a creep, instead trying to come up with polite excuses for needing to leave. Because she fears for her safety, and because she knows the professional ramifications of getting in the way of what men like Fein want, she cannot directly confront her abuser. Even as Mamet supplies Fein with laugh lines throughout the scene, the basic beats of interaction between Fein and Li ring horribly true.
Unfortunately, the play which surrounds this central scene does nothing meaningful to comment on this type of predatory behavior or the Weinsteins of the world. The tone of Bitter Wheat is that of farce; the closest thing to this in Mamet’s oeuvre is November (2008), which features a highly unpopular incumbent president (his numbers are “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol”, according to one character) that tries to rescue his floundering re-election bid by pardoning every turkey in America on Thanksgiving. If one were to observe that such silly comedy is probably not the best tone to take in approaching a drama about a serial rapist, they would be very, very correct.
To be sure, Mamet clearly loathes Fein, and Weinstein by extension. The play does not try to get him off the hook, or allow him any means of sympathy from the audience. Fein’s lone attempt to justify himself comes in the form of his repeated anger about being treated differently for being fat, a lazy and tired trope which, in Bitter Wheat, also serves to satirize Fein’s liberal politics. Fein, who helps finance a group called Friends of Illegal Immigrants (populated, one suspects, by straw men), uses the rhetoric of victimhood to complain about being mistreated for his weight, a move that Mamet clearly thinks is ridiculous. Fatphobia is a real thing, but on the list of things which makes Weinstein a bad guy, his waistline is absent.
Further on the matter of politics, Mamet makes big hay out of the fact that like Weinstein, Fein cynically profited from films which depict the real suffering of people around the world, caring only if the box office forecast and Oscar predictions looked to promise returns. This white liberal exploitation does happen in Hollywood, of course, but that Mamet chooses to spend much of the play’s dialogue hashing this out instead of, say, letting the voices of survivors like Li occupy center stage, shows that – much like the persistence of fat humor – Mamet focuses on everything but the real problems, the problems which merit deep artistic exploration. Instead of a meaningful examination of power, which Mamet has done successfully in his best work, we get a triggering of the liberals.
Mamet’s choice of comedy as genre, especially a zany species of comedy like farce, doomed Bitter Wheat from the start. From this play, our main takeaways are that the “comedy” of Weinstein is that he is fat and able to wield abusive power over women despite being an openly grotesque buffoon. (Press materials liken him to a “bloated monster” with his “predecessor” being “the minotaur”.) The latter is not so much funny as it is a banal fact about patriarchy’s inherent self-preservation drive; no man is too stupid to acquire the unjust advantages afforded to men in power. Lots of things are possible in art, but a farce about Harvey Weinstein is a reach that, even taken at its best possible iterations, wouldn’t advance artistically provoking conversations about the #MeToo era.
But despite what many critics have said about Mamet’s career downfall, the failures of Bitter Wheat derive not from his politics, but rather his plotting. One could imagine a version of this play with a different character at its center, with the same plot beats in place, and the result would be a no less vacuous comedy. For instance, swap out Fein with a conservative politician, who stereotypically claims to be a family man supporting family values, only to be constantly having affairs on the side. Just as Fein’s world collapses when Li charges him with sexual assault, so too could the politician’s world begin to crumble when one of his affairs becomes public. Would this play, with its conservative lead, fare any better? All the same follies of Bitter Wheat remain: the story focuses on the least interesting and most privileged character, and his hypocrisy is so egregious that there’s little nuance with which the audience could engage.
That said, Mamet’s politics clearly do get in the way here, particularly in an inert second act which ends with a joke so tepid that it felt like a power outage darkened the Garrick before Malkovich could finish it. Mamet tries to lampoon pro-immigration views, but can’t do so without contradicting the way he wrote the characters. For example, despite being a member of the Friends of Illegal Immigration, Fein in the second act chastises Sondra for using the phrase “illegal immigrant” by telling her that “no human being is illegal”; the “satire” being that a guy who has just been exposed as a predator is trying to take some moral high ground that Mamet clearly finds ridiculous. Why would Fein take such issue with that slogan if he represents a group with that very slogan in its name?
Sondra uses the term “illegal immigrant” because, in a pointless twist, Fein’s offstage mother is shot and killed by a Syrian immigrant who seeks vengeance on America for the conflict in his home country. This killer never appears, but his mere construction is a racist trope, another “comedic” attempt to “expose” the supposed absurdity of liberal views on immigration.
Mamet clearly wants Bitter Wheat to make a point. To the extent that it does, we glean that 1. Weinstein was a bad guy, and 2. liberals are total hypocrites. If the play wants to equivocate those two theses, suggesting that Weinstein’s particular badness was enabled by his politics, it is unsuccessful in doing so. What it does succeed in is problematically making light of a serious issue.
Mamet once wrote great plays about the operations of power as they manifest interpersonally and in business; Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) and The Cryptogram (1994) are some of the finest works of 20th century American drama. Mamet already has a solid satire of Hollywood’s shallow ethics in the form of 1988’s Speed-the-Plow. But this attempt at a hot-button play marks a new career low. The ad campaign for Bitter Wheat promises a provocation, but what we get is little more than sound and fury, signifying nothing.