Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. Directed by Joe Mantello. Set by Santo Loquasto. Costumes by Laura Bauer. Lighting by Kenneth Posner. Cast: Alan Alda, Lieb Schreiber, Frederick Weller, Tom Wopat, Gordon Clapp, and Jeffrey Tambor, also with Jordan Lage.
The good news for men who had to suffer being dragged to Steel Magnolias is that they at last have a Broadway revival this season to call their own. With Glengarry Glen Ross at the Jacobs/Royale, men of all ages, occupations, and walks of life again have the chance to see one of the contemporary American theatre's most jarring tributes to masculinity. The story of seven men, whose interests are hopelessly tied up in the cutthroat dealings at a do-or-die real estate office, speaks loudly and plainly to every man who feels the need to succeed, whatever the cost.
But the bad news - not just for potentially disenfranchised women, but for everyone - is that while this production reaffirms the toxic power of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it fails to completely satisfy on its own terms. Director Joe Mantello and the all-star cast he's assembled prove conclusively that there's not a speck of dust to be found on the play, even though most of them don't dig deep enough to find much of relevance beneath the surface.
That means this Glengarry Glen Ross plays shallowly, less like a modern-day analogue to Death of a Salesman than to a mass-market motion picture that capitalizes on profanity and harsh situations not because it must, but because it can. That, on no level, is Mamet: Despite the playwright's often-parodied predilection for four-letter words and acidic attitudes, never does he employ either without a clarity of intent more akin to that of a composer writing a symphony than an anonymous screenwriter capitulating to his target male, aged 18-25 demographic.
So when the first scene of any Mamet play registers with as much musicality as a scratched wax cylinder from the early 1900s, something is clearly wrong. That's exactly the case with Mantello's production, when the aging Shelley Levene (Alan Alda) and the young manager of the real estate office, John Williamson (Frederick Weller), discuss the business of business in the Chinese restaurant that serves as the firm's unofficial hangout. Levene, once a star salesman himself, has fallen on hard times and is desperate for even the faintest possibility of success, which he believes can best be obtained from the sought-after premiere leads that Williamson controls, and distributes only to the company's top earners.
As constructed by Mamet, the scene not only introduces and develops the story's strongest controller and the person most under his control, but more importantly the flavorful language and distinct rhythmic patterns that constitute the salesmen's shared vernacular. Interruptions, interruptions of interruptions, and vocalized pre-conceptions that are changed before a sentence is completed all play a role. We must sense not only Shelley's desperation, but Williamson's love of power and concern for his position and future.
Yet here, Alda is cartoony, conveying none of Shelley's need; Weller's delivery is stilted, forced. Neither actor is perfectly at home in his linguistic surroundings, so a vital grounding for the play is never established. The problem is only exacerbated in the next scene, in which another salesman, Dave Moss (Gordon Clapp), attempts to convince his coworker George Aaronow (Jeffrey Tambor) to break into the office and steal the leads, which they will sell and share the profits from. Both actors fare better than Alda and Weller, yet neither convincingly communicates the corrosive pressures that have brought them to this discussion.
None of these moments can thus pay off in the second act, after an actual burglary takes place and a police investigator (Jordan Lage) arrives to determine the culprit. As the men turn on each other - and in some cases themselves - they should take on the ferocity of caged animals being threatened with death for the slightest transgression. For them, the orderliness of law, the imposition of outside rules is the same thing as extermination. Here, despite plenty of screaming and in-fighting, that never comes through; the stakes aren't high enough. The audience never reacts more strongly to anything in the act than when the curtain rises on Santo Loquasto's stunningly real, oppressive office set. (It's lit grimly and well by Kenneth Posner.)
Only Liev Schreiber and Tom Wopat - as the company's top salesman Richard Roma and his milquetoast client James Lingk, respectively - provide fully realized characterizations that interpret rather than subvert Mamet's work. Schreiber finds the perfect mix of passion and oily sincerity; he oozes purposefully around the stage and his every word, whether part of a feverish sales pitch or in ordinary dialogue, sounds both calculated and entirely natural. Wopat plays beautifully opposite him - you can see in every muscle of his face how each of Roma's precisely targeted bullets hits its mark; Lingk's resolve visibly cracks again and again.
The production's finest moment is between the two in the second act, when Lingk attempts to renege on the deal they made the day before: Both men's pain, spoken and unspoken, and the threats they make to each other, stated and implied, are played out in their eyes and their physicality first, and their words second, creating the kind of palpable tension that should imbue every scene in the play.
This slow-burn subtlety, even while delivering and receiving rapid-fire insults and gentle verbal caresses, is what Glengarry Glen Ross, like most of Mamet's works, is really about. The showiness of the other performances and Mantello's direction, which is alternately sluggish and overly presentational, cheapens and dilutes the harsh reality that Mamet presents. Men, Mamet argues here, cannot and must not be tamed.
Mantello's attempts to do so have resulted in a Glengarry Glen Ross that's
closer in feel to an hourlong TV drama than a gripping glimpse of the
castrating environment in which the play is set. Still, at least Schreiber
and Wopat are on hand to remind the men in the audience - and everyone else
- of the chilling, insightful possibilities of theatre they'll never find
down the street at Steel Magnolias.