Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 8, 2012
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Cast: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, David Harbour, Richard Schiff, with John C. McGinley, Jeremy Shamos, Murphy Guyer.
This has its benefits, to be sure. Though the heist does occur, and the identity of the law-breaker is eventually unveiled, Mamet’s treatment of almost everyone with a caustically sympathetic eye lets each individual seem like a member of your personal inner circle. (Only John Williamson, the office manager, is a target of disrespectful ire.) So getting to know these people exactly as they see themselves transmits a verisimilitude that’s satisfying if, for no other reason, than because it is so incredibly real. But Glengarry Glen Ross, already softened by three decades of the culture harshening on its own, requires the sharpest fangs it can get — and most of the greasy grins flashed here are of the toothless variety.
Take, for example, Shelly Levene, the aging one-time superstar seller who will be at the front of the firing line if he doesn’t place in the contest. The character may be approached any number of ways in the opening scene, set in the men’s unofficial Chinese restaurant hangout, when he’s pressing John to float him the choicest names and phone numbers in exchange for part of the final take. But whether an individual production sees him as delusional, desolate, or desperate, he must still register as a fiery player in the game (if one temporarily shunted to the sidelines). Al Pacino, cast as him here, never speaks with the authenticity of a man on the outs. His monotonic whining, punctuated by unsure staccato movements, suggests more of an insecure up-and-comer trying to break in than a veteran struggling to maintain his grip.
As the action continues into the second act, when an investigation into the burglary threatens to steal all the men’s souls for various reasons, Pacino becomes more consistent. He’s never entirely believable delivering rambling speeches in which Shelly waxes nostalgic about his faded abilities, or in (perpendicularly) demonstrating what finesse he has left, but when events must break him, Pacino’s slumped shoulders and slurring walk identify that a real change has occurred. Still, because of the abbreviated nature of the journey (counting the intermission, the play runs well under two hours), witnessing the starting point is crucial, and we’re simply not able to see enough to accept who Shelly is or what he becomes.
Bobby Cannavale suffers from the opposite problem. He’s too believable as licensed con artist Richard Roma, the firm’s top seller, never switching the sleaze to “off” even when circumstances demand it most, thus dispelling the distinction between reality and fantasy he creates for the one client we see. Our first encounter with Richard is in the Chinese restaurant, establishing and evolving a master pitch that captivates us no less than it does the mark, James Lingk. But when Act II begins, and Richard should be dropping his guard (at least temporarily), he slides into the scene on a trail of ooze that makes his accomplishments less remarkable and startling than they should be. We want to be sold, too, but keeping us from understanding how “before” and “after” differ cannot, and thus does not, convince us of anything.
What McGinley also has that no one else does to an equivalent extent is a grasp of the lingo. He wields Mamet’s brutal, subversive zingers not like a sword but a bladed boomerang that always returns for another go. His speed-of-light pacing thrusts you into the excitement and flattens everyone who crosses him (Schiff is excellent as the initial, and the most frequent, steamroller victim), but you want and need the same from everyone else. Harbour’s reluctance, Cannavale’s hyperextended bravura, and Pacino’s uncertainty (after more than six weeks of previews and appearing as Richard in the 1992 film version, he was noticeably shaky on his lines at the performance I attended) stop them from fueling the controlled-burn mayhem that should be pervasive throughout.
Sullivan’s staging is decisive and professional, if underwhelming — chunky at times, but never as lugubrious as that of the last Broadway revival seven years ago. Eugene Lee’s wilting-wall set, Jess Goldstein’s hardscrabble costumes, and James F. Ingalls’s probing lights all strike the proper chords, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that something is out of tune. Without a universally sterling command of the language binding everyone together, this is just another thriller stripped of its thrills by the familiarity it’s accumulated since its premiere. Seeing how the argot of the business informs, transforms, and (in a couple of cases) disembowels its practitioners, can, however, be as nail-biting as ever, as McGinley reminds you every time he opens his mouth.
He doesn’t spout sentences as much as he does music, the sweeping overtones and guttural bass lines melding into a complete picture of someone on the verge of losing the control with which he’s always managed his life. Dave is at once horrific and likeable, a beast you can’t make yourself hate. He’s constantly on the precipice of danger, as engrossing a position as can be found in the theater. It sure beats the pool of nice in which everyone else is swimming — and gasping for the fresh, dirty air they so crucial to their own surviving and thriving in Glengarry Glen Ross.