Glengarry Glen Ross has been hailed as a blistering critique of American business practice, but in fact, it explores a very small segment of the business world, and its principals' maneuvering takes place far below the sightlines of the genuine corporate fat cats.
In contrast to the genial, glossy executives who run the country, the real estate salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross are small, greedy and desperate. Their joys are paltry, their explosions of rage futile, and their attempts at dignity laughable. They prey on people more clueless than themselves. Even their racism and misogyny seem more pathetic than threatening. When David Mamet adapted his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the screen, he emphasized his characters' helplessness by opening the film with a corporate shark delivering the news to the salesmen that the top two sellers would win awards and the rest would be fired.
Things unfold differently on the stage -- but the doomed feel is the same. HorseChart Theatre's production opens in a Chinese restaurant. Shelley Levene (played by Ken Witt), fearing the loss of his job, is trying to sell himself to his boss, Williamson (Philip A. Russell), with a long recitation about his own abilities, his past sales, his triumphs yet to come. The boss keeps his thoughts to himself. At a second table, Moss, played by Michael Morgan, is convincing fellow salesman Aaronow (Brook Millard) that the only way to save his job is to break into the office and steal the sales leads. Finally, we see Stephen James Anderson, as the office's top salesman, Roma, pitching a worthless real estate package to the hapless Lingk (Donald P. Ryan).
Glengarry Glen Ross
Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive
Through September 29. 303-595-3800.
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These three duets constitute a neat setup to the second act, when things start to boil. An office break-in has occurred; the police are at the office investigating, and the salesmen are called into a room one by one for questioning. Meanwhile, Roma lounges at his desk, exulting in his sale to Lingk, certain he's won the contest. Levene comes in full of good news: He's managed a killing of his own. He celebrates it with an extraordinary aria, taking his listeners into the kitchen where he sweet-talked an elderly couple into signing on the dotted line, hypnotizing us with his passion and conviction, just as he hypnotized them. Lingk -- Roma's mark -- returns. He wants to renege on the deal. Roma and Levene spring into action together to prevent this: It's like watching a snake slithering toward a terrified rabbit.
We've rooted for villains for centuries, from Shakespeare's Richard III to Milton's Lucifer, and by now we've been sucked into the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, with its odd rhythms and twisted mores. We root for Roma and Levene. We can even glimpse a kind of grandeur in the salesmen's single-mindedness, their refusal to give up, the ghastly courage that keeps them endlessly smiling and sweet-talking. At the same time, we want poor quaking Lingk to escape their clutches.
Mamet's words make actors look good. The actors of HorseChart Theatre Company return the favor, doing well by his play. Although the performing space is tiny and the actors are forced to work mere feet from their audience, they maintain complete concentration. The character of Shelley Levene, which employs an entire arsenal of shopworn tricks in the attempt to survive, is one of those almost-can't-miss roles, yet Ken Witt fills it admirably, bringing depth, eccentricity and feeling to the part. Morgan gives Moss jovial persuasiveness and an arm-waving physicality as elastic as his morals. Millard's strongest moments occur when he's listening to Moss, slack-jawed and intense-eyed, trying desperately to grasp what's being said, interjecting little explosions of syllables -- "Right, right" -- that sometimes break up and sometimes spur forward the flow of Moss's talk. Anderson's Roma comes into his own with his powerful, almost joyous manipulations in the second act. His sales spiel in the first is less convincing, but this may be in the writing. Russell is an enigmatic Williamson, Ryan's Lingk wins a full measure of audience sympathy, and Paul Christian Edris brings dignity to the straightman role of the police investigator.
Glengarry exists in a hermetically sealed universe. In it, Mamet creates significance, intensity, and even -- because of the much-remarked brilliance of his language, its rhythms and repetitions, the often surprising interplay between expression and emotion -- poetry. And meaning does radiate out. We understand how a man (and the cast is entirely male) becomes the work he does. For Roma, Levene, Williamson, Moss and the rest of the characters, every word, thought and action is shaped and twisted by the need to sell.