Glengarry Glen Ross
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 4, 2005
I swear... it's not a world of men... it's not a world of men, Machine... it's a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders... what it is, it's a fucked-up world... there's no adventure to it.
This, I believe is the center and main idea of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross. It's from the middle of a speech spoken by Richard Roma, the high-powered, ruthless real estate salesman who is the play's riveting anti-hero—a guy who has convinced himself that if he does his white-collar job of glad-handing customers and filling out paperwork with sufficient savagery then he's somehow a cowboy or an astronaut or something. Glengarry tears at the myth of the American Dream from its underside, from the perspective of the also-rans and wannabes who always think they're this close to attaining it; the kind of people who will vote for tax cuts for the rich on the premise that any minute now they'll be on the inside, riding the loopholes on the backs of some other poor schmucks.
I think, in 1984 (when Glengarry premiered and won the Pulitzer Prize), there was irony here. Today, at least in the stifling and curiously dispassionate new Broadway production directed by Joe Mantello, there's nothing but hollow resonance.
This is despite the efforts of a celebrity-laden cast that is headed by Alan Alda, who is at the top of his form and effortlessly in command of this production as washed-up Shelly Levine, whether soliloquizing like a latter-day Willy Loman about his pathetic fall from grace in his company's pecking order or, most satisfyingly, exercising his brilliant comic timing whilst working a miniature con game with Liev Schreiber against Tom Wopat. These latter-named two gentlemen are also impressive to observe here: Schreiber is smooth and assured as the salesman Roma (though perhaps not so seething as he might be); while Wopat is convincingly whipped and used-up as a husband so beaten down that he has to apologize to Schreiber for not standing up to him and turning him down. Jeffrey Tambor (of TV's Arrested Development) is alternately restrained and manic as another salesman by the name of Aaronow, while Gordon Clapp (of TV's NYPD Blue), as still another salesman, is all bluster and brawn as he delivers the Mametian rat-a-tat-tat dialogue with machine-gun precision. (Frederick Weller, oddly wooden as the office manager, is the sixth of the show's above-the-title stars.)
It's also more or less in spite of the crackling, snarling poetry that Mamet has given his characters to deliver here. Mantello seems to direct against the rhythms of the text, making the carefully crafted interruptions and repetitions feel like random noise rather than meticulous music. Mantello generally places his actors side-by-side in their conversations, rather than in the more natural face-to-face position, so that they're made to talk out to the audience rather than interact with each other. This problem is reinforced by Santo Loquasto's mammoth, horizontal sets, which—for all their supposed attention to detail—actually give the actors less to work with than if they were sparer and not so expansive.
The pace—slow throughout; relentless in Act One—gives us time to ponder the implausibilities of Mamet's plot, which includes an intricate plan to rob a real estate office and a couple of detailed depictions of selling, essentially, ice to Eskimos. It also gives us time to luxuriate in Mamet's trademark language, and to notice (a) how uninteresting it is, all these years later; (b) how offensive it is, especially the use of words like "cocksucker" (many, many times) to indicate a lower form of male homo sapiens; and (c) how unnecessary and out-of-touch its numerous ethnic slurs are, especially the ones directed against Indians.
The more I see of Mamet's work, the less impressive I find it: what exactly are we supposed to take away from a play like Glengarry Glen Ross once the shock value of giving voice to impotent middle-class white men has disappeared?