Selling Souls

Roundfish Theatre Company is off to a fast start. The new group's taut, smart production of David Mamet's scathing indictment of American salesmanship gone awry, Glengarry Glen Ross, proves the new producers have guts--and taste. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Mamet's use of profanity is almost poetic. He stealthily reveals character with such precision and layers of human malice with so much clever subtlety that a group of sleazy real estate pitchmen become something more universal--they stand in for all those who live free of virtue. Though all the actors in the Roundfish production are younger than one might expect the characters to be, they pull it off thanks to sheer talent and Richard Cowden's rigorous, meticulous direction.

The minimal plot concerns four salesman who work for the same boiler-room operation calling suckers ("leads") and getting them to buy in on real estate developments in far-off places. As the play opens, Shelley argues over lunch with the office manager, John, about how much he needs premium leads (i.e., likely clients). John listens stonily, and only when Shelley offers him a bribe does he respond. But John is avaricious, and Shelley can't match his demands. Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Shelley is nearing the edge.

Later that day, a more successful salesman, Dave, tries to blackmail George into stealing the leads from the office and making it look like an outside job. The next day, when the salesmen come in to work, they find that the office has indeed been robbed, and the investigating cop (played with cool hard-headedness by David C. May) is peculiarly nasty and blunt. Eventually the thief is identified, but not before every man's character is fully exposed.

Except for the robbery, of course, nothing these men do is strictly illegal. Like used-car salesmen, they lie artfully without leaving themselves open to lawsuits. They seek the name on the dotted line, and when a customer balks or tries to withdraw, they cajole, caress and finesse him into buying a condo he doesn't need.

These are literally godless men--that is, they have no principle beyond the profit motive, no compassion for anyone, no ethos beyond "survival of the fittest." In the most powerful scene of the evening, a customer, James Lingk, comes to the office to get his wife's money back. The salesman who conned him, Richard, never loses his cool--he draws Shelley into the game to turn his patsy around again, and the two salesmen are nearly home, when John opens his mouth and queers the deal.

The pity we may feel for one or another of the salesmen is pity for the weaker animal--the one about to be devoured. But that weaker animal is only slightly less contemptible than the vulture at his throat. Shelley appears to have a little more humanity about him because he mentions his daughter, because he tries to help Richard (albeit to con a customer), and because his frustration with John is justified. Richard is more complex than the other men, more graceful in his predatory state and more single-minded in his dedication. But at the very end of the play, Richard shows one last dimension that ends any sympathy we may have had for him. He is less panther than hyena.

Several members of this terrific young cast hail from Ohio University, and that school must do an exceptional job of training actors, because these are highly disciplined performers. Nolan Patterson appears to have ice in his veins as the cruel office manager--his reptilian malice, calculating and causeless, gradually poisons the entire atmosphere of the play. Jamie Forehand's Richard is a real charmer--all brains, no heart. Michael Rahhal's larcenous Dave is the one loudmouth in the bunch, yet he milks the talky thief for emotional power. Christopher Peterson makes George's weakness and terror fully palpable, and Rolls Andre's Shelley is touching and despicable by turns.

Mamet's characters like going in for the kill, they like the anything-goes mentality they've bought into, and they really like chewing each other's tails off. Mamet understands these men at work. And director Cowden understands Mamet--how to make that lavish, intelligent, almost poetic language sing the song of depravity.

Glengarry Glen Ross, through July 27 at The Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 820-2544.

 
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