Glengarry Glen Ross has a lot to say and a sizzling way of saying it
David Mamet wrote Glengarry Glen Ross more than twenty years ago, but this study of unscrupulous salesmen pitching worthless plots in Florida is acutely relevant today. The hustlers who helped create the current financial meltdown by persuading thousands of working people to buy houses they couldn't afford must be very like Mamet's characters, though they are certainly higher rollers.
Mamet's all-male world reminds me of something I once read about the socio-cultural differences between men and women's prisons: Female prisoners form allegiances based on the concept of family, even calling each other dad, sister or auntie. But men's prison societies are entirely hierarchical, shaped by brute force. The salesmen in this play spend their time jockeying for ascendance. They're desperate, but their desperation hasn't humanized them or increased their ability to empathize either with their victims or with a colleague who's losing his footing. And that colleague's teeth are as sharp as anyone else's. The only entirely blameless figure is James Lingk, the mark of one of the salesmen, but he is a wuss, entirely dependent on orders from his wife. (His phone conversations with her represent the play's single manifestation of Mamet's much-noted misogyny, although you also can't help feeling that the playwright revels in the men's shrill, brutal world even as he condemns it.)
The action is tightly constructed and the evening fizzes along swiftly, buoyed by strong, fast gusts of rage and incessant bubbles of profanity. Three vignettes, which take place in the red vinyl booths of a Chinese restaurant, serve as prologue. In the first, an older salesman, Shelly Levene, pleads with the manager, John, to give him better leads; this guy has all of Willy Loman's anguish, but he's faster and slicker and far more apt to lash out at others than to destroy himself, as Loman does. Then you see two more salesmen, one trying to convince the other to rob the office. Finally, there's an object lesson in how the men ply their trade as one of them, Richard Roma, encounters the hapless Lingk, softening him up with meaningless but portentous-sounding philosophizing — "What is our life? Where is the moment? What is it that we're afraid of?" — before zeroing in on him like a hungry shark.
By the second scene, the robbery has been committed and a cop is at the office. Under his questioning eye, the men begin to fall to pieces. We watch all this from the outside: We're not asked to empathize with any of these people, and we don't, even when Shelly worries about his daughter's future, even as our nostrils fill with the stench of their communal despair. It goes deeper than financial survival, this despair. It's primal. The men feel that their masculinity is intimately connected with their success at selling.
Glengarry Glen Ross won a Pulitzer in 1984. It's brilliantly written, absorbing and often very funny. Much of the play's genius lies in Mamet's language; despite a plethora of "fuck"s, the dialogue is musical, rhythmic, penetrating; the speech is stylized but feels realistic; these men use language as a weapon to wound, seduce, deceive. But I don't think it's a great play, and I don't believe that the truths it communicates about greed, selfishness and masculinity are deep and enduring ones.
Still, the Denver Center Theatre Company has mounted a sizzling production, impeccably directed by Marco Barricelli. From the very beginning, when you hear the sounds of Chicago's El thundering through the theater, its passage alternately lightening and darkening the windows of the Chinese restaurant, you sense that you're in good hands. The casting is first-rate. Every actor is convincing in his role; each shows a profound comfort level with Mamet-speak. Mike Hartman's Shelly is by turns pathetic and dangerous, a sentimental man, entirely devoid of self-awareness. And newcomer Ian Merrill Peakes is a revelation as super-salesman Roma. He has every gesture, every seedy predictable inflection, down right. This man is callow and impermeable, but his very callowness gives him a frightening kind of power. This is the kind of revelatory acting we've seen only in snatches since Kent Thompson took over the Denver Center Theatre Company and this town lost some of its largest and most passionate talents. Let's hope it's the beginning of a trend.
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