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Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet's 22-year-old drama is up to the minute as it sticks figurative needles into American corporate practices. logo
Liev Schreiber in Glengarry Glen Ross
(Photo © Scott Landis)
Were David Mamet writing Glengarry Glen Ross today and setting his shrewd dramatist's eye on four devious real estate operators, he'd have to pen a different play. The ubiquity of the cell phone would change how these conniving salesmen do business. It's unlikely that they'd lunch in a nearby Chinese restaurant, as they do in Mamet's economical first act, without being interrupted by anxious prospects or motivated to make urgent outgoing calls. And in the energized second act -- when you can almost hear the playwright chuckling as he makes life tough for his calculating characters -- these desperadoes wouldn't be at a loss for land-line phones in their burglarized office.

Viewed from this perspective, Glengarry Glen Ross -- which debuted at London's National Theatre in 1983 and opened on Broadway in early 1984 -- is dated. But in every other way, Mamet's excoriating drama is up to the minute as it sticks figurative needles into businessmen and, by extrapolation, into American corporate practices. "We are the members of a dying breed," says Richard Roma (Liev Schreiber), the slickest of the morally-challenged lot. He thereby establishes the drama's homage to Death of a Salesman, the other great beleaguered-businessman play of the 20th-century. Roma's verbal knell may even be more pertinent than ever in today's gravely compromised political atmosphere.

"Always tell the truth -- it's the easiest thing to remember," says Roma to his flustered colleague George Aaronow (Jeffrey Tambor). It's an indelible quote and undoubtedly accurate. Thanks to Mamet for putting it so succinctly. Of course, this doesn't mean that when Roma is eager to close a deal so he can secure a bonus Cadillac Seville, he won't lie all the way down to his manicured fingernails and high-gloss shoes. That's just what he does when confronted with a buyer named James Lingk (Tom Wopat), who has developed cold feet. Roma's not alone in his combination of steel-plated ambition and cowardly cunning as he tries to wangle leads on potentially salable properties from cool office manager John Williamson (Frederick Weller). Shelly Levene (Alan Alda), in the midst of a lengthening losing streak, will apparently go to any extremes to obtain leads -- and so will the other salesmen.

Alan Alda and Frederick Weller in Glengarry Glen Ross
(Photo © Scott Landis)
Dave Moss (Gordon Clapp) is so cut-throat that he's not above scheming to get his hands on Williamson's coveted leads through criminal action. He could be the man behind the burglary that brings investigating policeman Baylen (Jordan Lage) to the trashed Premier Properties branch office. That's when things go further haywire in the troubled office, which is apparently presided over by two fellows called Mitch and Murray; they never appear, but their monikers serve as metaphors for absent yet tyrannical top management everywhere. (For the 1992 movie version of Glengarry, Mamet wrote in a hard-nosed upper-echelon guy named Blake to threaten the nervous employees.) Edging towards his edgy finish, Mamet sets all his real-estate-plugging ducks in a row so that they can each shoot themselves in the foot. The denouement that he concocts is still surprising and devastating.

Mamet does all of this with dialogue that may be less startling than it was two decades ago. The dramatic literature lexicon has been greatly expanded not only on stage but also in the movies and on television to include once-verboten four-, six- and 12-letter words. What isn't often matched is Mamet's rhythm, his composer's ear for how men express themselves when cocky, crestfallen, or cowed. He's one of those playwrights --- predecessor Paddy Chayevsky was another -- who change the way we perceive everyday conversation. "That's how people really talk," we say when leaving a Mamet play, whether this is entirely true or not. Though audiences may not take in Mamet's best plays as delicious and diabolical prose poems, that's what they most assuredly are.

Director Joe Mantello conducts Mamet's American melodies with Leonard Bernstein-like verve. He also gets flawless work from set designer Santo Loquasto, costume Laura Bauer, and lighting designer Kenneth Posner. Loquasto's lacquered red-and-black Chinese restaurant is on-the-nose good; his generic office, a deliberate affront to the aesthetically squeamish, is better than good.

Mantello is equally successful with the cast. While the director may slightly overplay the playwright's first movement -- er, first act -- he hits a pace-perfect tempo as the dark second-act fireworks ignite. The actors astonish, the more so because everyone of them is doing something he hasn't before. Alan Alda uses his familiar high nasal twang to make Shelly Levene a classic whiner; whenver he's cornered, he bleats, "My daughter!" Liev Schreiber adds to his gallery of spot-on characterizations. This wily actor always finds some telling physical gesture to pounce on; watch his flexing foot when he's baiting Tom Wopat's Lingk. As for Wopat -- who's recently strutted through Annie Get Your Gun, 42nd Street, and Chicago -- his may be the biggest change-of-pace. Even without a cap, he turns Lingk into a nondescript hat-in-hand fellow. Or maybe it's Gordon Clapp, graduating from 12 years as the soft-hearted Greg Medavoy on NYPD Blue, who does the smartest about-face with his loud-mouth, resentful Dave Moss. Frederick Weller and Jeffrey Tambor also bring new colors -- opaque gray and mousy brown, respectively -- to their roles.

The Drama Desk has already announced an out-of-competition award to the Glengarry Glen Ross ensemble. The honor is deserved (and might also have been given to the cast of Mamet's downtown click, Romance). As Linda Loman says at the end of Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid. Otherwise, one should expect dire consequences, as David Mamet makes frighteningly clear.

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