Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet wastes no time getting down to business in Glengarry Glen Ross, onstage in a ferocious production right now at Dallas Theater Center. He goes to the dark side of the real estate business. Selling worthless tracts of land in Florida—parceled into "units" with made-up Scottish names that end in "Farms" and "Highlands"—can suck the soul right out of a man. And the less soul, the better the sales figures look for the men operating out of Premier Properties, a shabby Chicago boiler room in the early 1980s.

Arthur Miller gave us the old-fashioned solitary salesman to pity. Wearing out shoe leather to peddle goods one small order at a time, browbeaten Willy Loman could have been father to the frantic men Mamet created. Glengarry's cocky hucksters, cold-calling customers and lying with ease, would write Willy off as a penny-ante chump. They earn our pity for different reasons. Behind all their big talk about what they could do with "good leads" (names of potential buyers), these guys are scared down to their spit-shined wingtips of losing their jobs. It'll take more than tenacity to get their sales rolling again. Never-seen employers Mitch and Murray have tagged this lot as losers. They're punishing the office by sending leads so old they're nicknamed "the nostalgia file."

"Marshal the leads? Marshal the leads? What the fuck talk is that?" moans Shelly "The Machine" Levene, a rumpled veteran desperate to turn around a long losing streak. The play opens in a booth at a chop suey joint with Shelly (played by New York import Jack Davidson) and compadre Dave Moss (John Doman, who co-stars on HBO's series The Wire) scheming to steal the Holy Grail of leads from a locked file kept by their boss, John Williamson (Craig Wroe). Moss thinks they can sell the list of thousands of names to a rival real estate office, then go to work there. Levene is tempted. His wife's in the hospital and something has happened to his daughter, though we never know exactly what.

In jazzy runs of staccato gab full of the trade jargon of small-time dealmakers, Levene, Moss, Ricky Roma (Peter Rini) and their frazzled coworker George Aaronow (Apollo Dukakis) obsess about the "leads" and "closing." When Levene thinks he's popped eight units of land on a couple called "the Nyborgs," he shouts "Get the chalk!" so Williamson can move his name higher on "the board" showing who's leading the sales contest. First prize: A Cadillac.

Mamet's salesmen rant and argue and joke and boast in dialogue that burbles out in the shorthanded language of American business filtered through the playwright's own Pinter-tinged rhythms. Phrases are chopped to syllables and then shrunk to mere plosive consonants as conversations tumble into one another. It's tribal chanting in a way, something underscored by sound designer Greg H. Hennigan's clangy between-scenes drumbeats.

Each character in Glengarry is given a unique style of speech. Roma, pressing a quivering man named Lingk (Dallas actor Matthew Gray) to do a deal, machine-guns rhetorical questions. "What are we afraid of?" he says. "How can we act?" He never waits for answers. Later Roma gets personal with his boss, roaring "Whoever told you you could work with MEN?"

There are only seven characters, all male, in this two-act play, but the stage seems to teem with bodies in constant motion. Director David Kennedy keeps actors moving and talking at a breathless pace. That first act in the restaurant, consisting of three rapid-fire duologues, flies by in a half-hour. The 45-minute second act, into which Mamet works a nifty little whodunit with a twist of an ending, is a blur of confrontations peppered with enough "fucks" and "cocksuckers" to send some of DTC's stuffier patrons to Parkland in apoplexy.

Glengarry's blasts of dirty language are no worse than what we grew used to from Tony Soprano. What may have hit the ears like linguistic shrapnel in 1984 when the play premiered in New York now just seems really, really funny. Sad and tense as it is in places, this play could be viewed overall as a tight workplace comedy. Many things that weren't funny in it before now are for obvious reasons. In the second act, the gang gathers back at the office, where a burglar has made off with the file of good leads and all the telephones, leaving the salesmen cut off from the outside world. Moss, trying to close a sale, rushes out to use a pay phone down the block. The quaintness of that gets laughs. With cell phones and e-mail, the loss of some land lines would barely be noticed today.

Keeping the men incommunicado in the office is essential to the plot of the play, of course. There's a Detective Baylen (local actor Sean Hennigan, back at DTC after a 15-year absence) in the inner office, interrogating each man about the break-in. And instead of calling in to cancel his contract, Lingk has to show up in person, leading to one of the best riffs in the script as Roma and Levene launch into an impromptu role-play to convince Lingk they're too busy to handle his complaint.

The most memorable scene in the 1992 movie of Glengarry—Alec Baldwin as Blake, a downtown hotshot swinging brass balls and giving the eight-minute "Always be closing" speech—doesn't happen in the stage version. But you won't miss it. Except for Baldwin's cameo and Al Pacino's Ricky Roma, the movie's stars were mostly awkward fits in their roles. (Jack Lemmon way oversold Levene's forced levity and subsequent breakdown and got an Oscar nom anyway.)

Glengarry Glen Ross has to be experienced live to be appreciated, and for once Dallas Theater Center uses its penchant for out-of-town talent prudently. Older New York actors Dukakis (seen before at DTC in Anna in the Tropics and Taming of the Shrew) and Davidson perform Mamet's most difficult spurts of dialogue like great tenors finding every nuance in Nessun Dorma. They don't have comparable local counterparts.

The best performance comes from another import. Tall, curly-haired Peter Rini, who also has numerous Broadway credits, blows the doors off DTC's Kalita Humphreys Theater as Ricky Roma. He's the Soprano cousin in the Midwest, a slick and sexy seducer of shmucks like Lingk who get swept into his charming palaver and only later realize they've been had. The most recent Broadway revival of Glengarry won Liev Schreiber a Tony for playing Roma. It's a showy role, and young Rini puts on a great show in it.

Before Enron, before WorldCom, before all those corporate fairy tales wherein fraudulent trolls made billions convincing stockholders they'd spun straw into gold, David Mamet correctly predicted the future of the business model. It's not the product that's valuable; it's "the leads" eager to buy into it that you need to get your hands on.

If that's a hard sell for Glengarry Glen Ross—both the play and the exhilarating production at DTC—so be it. This is great American theater on a great American stage. Through Mamet's dynamic games of verbal kick-the-can we get the modern Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman was a weary dreamer simply hoping his sons would grow up to be well-liked. Mamet's boys could give a shit about popularity. Getting well-paid is their imperative, even if it means screwing somebody else out of the American dream.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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