David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat with John Malkovich – reviews round-up

Bitter reviews for David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat at The Garrick

Production photo of John Malkovich in David Mamet's Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre in London
John Malkovich in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Even recruiting John Malkovich, one of the finest stage actors of his generation to make a rare West End appearance couldn’t sweeten the critics’ reactions to David Mamet‘s Bitter Wheat:

“a flabby, cynical and pointless effort” cried Tim Bano in The Stage

“lazy, crude and empty” railed Henry Hitchins in the Evening Standard

Michael Billington of The Guardian called it “ineffectual” which is quite restrained compared with “a hot mess of gauche plotting, unfinished ideas and sheer wrongheadedness… It might just be the most pointless play of the year” That from Alice Jones writing in The i

“Politically, it’s tiresome; theatrically, it’s loopy” said Holly Williams in Time Out

“(It) manages to spend two hours saying very little at all” moaned Greg Stewart in Theatre Weekly.

“as flaccid as a deflated balloon” lamented Matt Trueman in Variety

“Implausible, daft and irritating” said Aleks Sierz on The Arts Desk, sounding a little irritated.

For Debbie Gilpin on the BroadwayWorld website, it “lacks clarity and intent”

Dominic Maxwell of The Times called it “a wonky piece of theatre”

“Bitter Wheat is a bitter disappointment” said Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph. (You see what he did there?)

Distasteful and misjudged don’t begin to describe it,” said Mark Shenton in londontheatre.co.uk. Okay, Mark, so what would describe it? “stupefyingly silly and frequently offensive.” Well I did ask.

The star ratings tell it all.

1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) The Stage
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) WhatsOnStage
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) londontheatre.co.uk
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5)The Arts Desk
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) The Daily Telegraph
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) The Guardian
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)The Times
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Time Out
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) The i
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Evening Standard
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Theatre Weekly
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Broadway World

I’ve only found one of the overnight reviews that gave more than two stars. That was a 3 star review from David Lister in The Independent and even he said: “Malkovich deserved a more rounded and thought-provoking play”.

So what was it that they were bitter about? Five themes emerge from the reviews.

Not much in the way of plot

First there was the thin to non-existent story. The character is Barney Fein which sounds like Harvey Weinstein. And that’s because it’s a satire about a movie mogul who abuses his position.

“It feels like a first draft, its silly and unsatisfactory second half needs rewriting,” said The Times bluntly, and went on: “Can you make high comedy about something so blatantly inspired by the Harvey Weinstein story? Not without a more evolved storyline than Mamet manages here.”

“Mamet’s play lurches from set piece to set piece and tone to tone in search of a good-enough counterpoint to its awful antihero…” complained WhatsOnStage, continuing “(it) is not really a play at all but an unfocused and tawdry howl of anger”

“a classic of lazy playwriting” said the Arts Desk, explaining: “Mamet follows a simple recipe, writing by numbers. And you could do this too. Here’s how: 1) Select a current controversy; 2) Read a couple of Sunday supplement articles about it; 3) Dredge your memory for some Tinseltown anecdotes; 3) Write a monologue. Add jokes.”

The New York Times weighed in with “‘Bitter Wheat’, bilious to a fault, also feels scattershot and lazy”.

Time Out seemed to enjoy the first act but not the second: “typical Mamet fast-paced, sarcastic exchanges with some zinging insults, revealing the hollow nature of Hollywood and ultimately pitting a smart young woman against the sleazy older man” but “the extremely brief and sketchy second half is just bizarre”

It sounds like it might be a good idea to leave at the interval. Here’s Variety: “the plot creaks with convenient fire alarms and useful idiots.  It’s lazy and that’s before Mamet gives up on a short second half that piles on a bonfire of improbabilities.” And that’s the fourth time the word ‘lazy’ has been used.

“Mamet doesn’t even bother to give his play a proper ending” gasped The i.

The play clearly has its moments. The Times describes a scene that “depicts a moment of sexual threat with such horrible ordinariness that you feel as if you are locked in the room with its characters yourself. It’s an unforgettable, unhysterical scene.”

Disappointing dialogue

Secondly, there’s the disappointing dialogue.

“Given Mamet’s expertise and the sensitivity of the subject-matter, what’s surprising is just how dashed-off the dialogue seems” said the Daily Telegraph, continuing: “Where once Mamet’s lines zinged, too often they wheeze on Zimmers; there’s more chaff than wheat here.” Dominic Cavendish’s previous “bitter disappointment” inspiring another pun on the title. “Some jokes land. Others go thud.” said The Times, not referring to his fellow critic.

The Stage quite liked the “Entertaining dialogue” but found it “empty of revelation”. For Theatre Weekly, “It’s not the story being told, or even the person telling the story that’s the issue, it’s that it lacks any kind of challenge to the audience, and the instances of clever writing are drowned out.”

No depth to the main character

The critics found the main character just as lacking in depth as the plot.

“this is a vehicle for pithy lines that don’t amount to a character” said The Stage. The Evening Standard made the same point: “The role lacks psychological depth: Fein is a profane, abusive, creepy figure, but essentially he’s just a conduit for Mamet’s vitriolic lines.”

“Bitter Wheat never fully reveals the psychological depths of this depraved character” agreed The Independent. “The sorry fact is that Fein never deepens or darkens” said the New York Times. “the hero is unrelievedly vicious” cried The Guardian. For WhatsOnStage “Fein is a pantomime villain, a buffoon rather than a real threat”

Other characters thinly drawn

Did the other characters make up for the failure to create a believable central character? I’m afraid not.

“The rest of the cast are merely decoration around him, treated in various shades of contempt and dismissal” said Theatre Weekly.

“none of his characters are psychologically credible” noted Variety. They were, said WhatsOnStage: “virtually unplayable and criminally under-written roles”.

“at least put a teeny bit of effort into any of the other characters” pleaded The Stage.

Damning with faint praise, Time Out declared: “the best things about ‘Bitter Wheat’ really are the women, even though their parts are thin”.

The male viewpoint

Finally the critics didn’t like the viewpoint. Where angels fear to tread in the aftermath of #MeToo, Mamet appears to have jumped in with both hobnail booted feet.

“we really didn’t need a Harvey Weinstein play, written by a man and from a male perspective. The whole thing leaves you feeling… grubby” shuddered Time Out.

Variety summed up: “he ends up exploiting the experiences of assault survivors for entertainment”. BroadwayWorld felt the same: “It does ask that we re-hash all those harrowing #MeToo revelations for entertainment… but hardly shedding any new light” Furthermore “women’s voices are once again being drowned out by that of a man”

The i got the same impression: “the victim is relegated to literally watching men talk to each other from the sidelines.” The i continues: “It’s as if he wants to write about anything except the effects of sexual assault and what should happen to the perpetrators”

What about John Malkovich?

John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat. Photo: Manuel Harlan

So those are five major reasons the critics didn’t like Bitter Wheat. But what about John Malkovich? Surely he offered some compensation? Not according to The Stage: “Malkovich – obviously a brilliant actor – isn’t brilliant here. He delivers everything in an unceasing monotone, like someone is doing some drilling next door”

Time Out found “he plays Fein as wholly unpleasant, he’s not nuanced.” WhatsOnStage starts by describing Malkovich as “one of the most charismatic and dangerous actors of his generation” before saying “even his light seems dulled.”

“Fine actor though he is, Malkovich has to work overtime to invest a character who claims ‘people are animals’ with any light and shade” said The Guardian. “At times his performance is fun; at times it’s funny; over time, it’s a bore” concluded The Arts Desk.

“A passable performance from Malkovich cannot save this play, or make it into something it’s not” said BroadwayWorld. It’s hard to believe that a word like ‘passable’ is being used about the great John Malkovich but I guess you can’t make bricks without straw.

Others were more impressed by him.

The Daily Telegraph praised: “Malkovich’s ability to hold our attention” continuing “Malkovich re-affirms his idiosyncratic charm and nonchalant aura. It’s great to see him” before concluding on a downbeat note: “he’s not enough to tip the balance fully in the evening’s favour”

The Independent had no doubts about his quality- and perhaps this was what swung the three star review: “John Malkovich, prowling the stage like a bloated, warped colossus,… is present on stage throughout and dominates it with a towering performance that conveys not just the vulgarity, the bullying, and the predatory nature of the movie mogul, but also the paranoia that helped to define Weinstein.”

Clickbait?

One word noticeably crops up twice in the reviews.

It was, said The i: “The theatrical equivalent of clickbait.” The Evening Standard suspected the same: “instead of prompting nuanced discussion, it has the rancid smell of clickbait.”

Personally I think it might be going a bit far to suggest that somehow Bitter Wheat was written purely with ticket sales in mind. But certainly we can conclude from the reviews that while much was promised in this comedy by David Mamet starring John Malkovich about one of today’s important issues, little was delivered.

Not everyone who’s seen it agreed. An actual movie star Rupert Grint, who should know whereof he speaks, said it showed the reality of behind the scenes in the entertainment world. And, even if this is not Mamet’s finest hour, it is still a rare opportunity to see John Malkovich on stage. You can see Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre in London until 21 September 2019.

Footnote

Reviews that arrived later weren’t much kinder. Susannah Clapp awarded Bitter wheat one star in  her Observer review, calling it “a feeble fizzle”. Ben Croll in Vanity Fair called it “a tired play on autopilot, courting scandal by inertia and grabbing whatever low-hanging fruit it can.”

Johnny Oleksinski in The New York Post used a quote from the play against it: “Bitter Wheat begins … when a young screenwriter pitches his script to Fein. “Your script is a piece of s–t,” he says. If only someone had told Mamet the same.”

There were exceptions. Two positive reviews came from Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times and Lloyd Evans in The Spectator- both are often contrarians. Mr Letts gave Bitter Wheat 4 stars but unfortunately his review is trapped behind a paywall. And Mr Evans “could have watched this captivating freak-show until midnight and beyond. It’s a fine play, rather creakily structured…”

Click here to watch the One Minute Theatre Reviews roundup of reviews of Bitter Wheat on YouTube