Glengarry Glen Ross—written by David Mamet in 1984, currently in its second Broadway revival and adapted for a well-known film in 1992—is quintessential Mamet: set in an intensely masculine environment, deeply concerned with power dynamics, thickly layered with deceit and psychological game-playing, and bristling with his signature dialogue style, with its unfinished sentences and interruptions and meaningful ellipses. The milieu it depicts feels in some ways oddly removed from what we currently recognize as the world of business—an old-style sales contest, conducted with personal visits and door-to-door selling techniques, in a world before spam emails, the Internet, cell phones, and modern data-mining customer research. At the same time, the play’s curdled atmosphere of anxiety over money, testosterone, power games, and not-so-quiet economic desperation may speak more clearly than ever to these difficult economic times.
The set-up is simple: the salesmen in a downmarket real-estate office, hawking questionable “investment properties” in Florida, are in a competition. The person with the highest dollar figure on the board at the end of the month wins a car. There are four players in this game: Down-on-his-luck Shelly “the Machine” Levene, formerly a high flyer but now reduced almost to begging for potential leads, is trying to bribe the office manager into slipping him some better prospects. Current high flyer Ricky Roma doesn’t think he needs a leg up; he thinks he’s made himself unbeatable with one masterful sale to a timid guy named Lingk at a Chinese restaurant, and the car is virtually his. But Dave Moss, sick of the whole thing, has a scheme to defect to a competitor and take the office’s sales leads with him, and he’s trying to enlist the equally unhappy and overly anxious George Aaronow into his plans.
The first act takes place in a Chinese restaurant, where private negotiations go on among the salesmen and their marks, and schemes like Moss’s are plotted. The second act takes place in the office itself, as a police officer investigates a recent break-in that stole the phones, the typewriters, some contracts—and the all-important sales leads.
What Daniel Sullivan’s production gets right is the aura of seedy and powerless desperation that clings to everyone: the salesmen, of course; even the cocky Roma is more than a little anxious when his customer James Lingk shows up at the office. But that aura spreads further: to Williamson, the office manager, who seems even twitchier than most of his staff; to Lingk, who sadly admits that he doesn’t hold the power in his marriage; even to Baylen, the stolid cop investigating the break-in, who can’t get the men to march in and be interrogated in good order.
On the other hand, the whole thing also feels slightly bloodless. All the performers feel a little tentative, a little reined-in, a little too self-conscious rather than relishing the chewiness of Mamet at his most deliriously stylized. Bobby Cannavale’s Ricky Roma comes the closest to digging into Mamet’s language and pacing with gusto. Richard Schiff, as Aaronow, takes an interesting approach, turning all of his energy inwards, almost imploding with anxiety. Al Pacino’s brash signature style may seem more suited to the role of the high-flying top salesman Ricky Roma (which he’d played in the film) than the defeated elder-statesman-on-his-way-down, Willy-Loman-like Shelly Levene—but he reins it in, perhaps even a little too far. At the one moment when Shelly believes he’s back on top, I was never quite sure Pacino believed it.
The thing that struck me most about the play, seeing it in 2012, is that its entire dynamic, the entire engine that drives the competition among the nearly desperate men in this shady office and their never-seen rivals in other similar environments, is the scarcity of crucial information. The prime commodity in this play is sales leads—information about customers who might be persuaded, with a glossy brochure and a well-calculated sales pitch, to invest in dubious properties in unseen places. With those leads, with good leads for people who might write a cashable check rather than the second-tier that might as well have come out of the phone book, a salesman can really get something done. Without them—as we see in the second act, when different combinations of the men are completely hamstrung by the phone-less, lead-less office—they’re useless.
It’s an odd dynamic, viewed from this vantage point of overwhelming information abundance, where the challenge isn’t finding such leads, but sorting through a pool of almost limitless possibilities to find the nugget of data you need. Today, those salesmen would probably be running a spam email operation—but their economic paralysis, their dependence on the vulnerabilities and greed of others to achieve success, and their simmering anger would be just the same.