David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross,” on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts, is a most intriguing play. For it possesses no characters we care about yet results in a production we are glued to.
Yes I know, this last sentence starts with a conjunction and ends with a proposition. Get used to it, because the two hours of “Glengarry Glen Ross” is filled with Mamet-speak that creates absolutely captivating dialogue out of tough talk void of grammatical eloquence, interrupted fragmentary utterances consisting of little more than ifs and buts, and frequent rapid-fire profanity. It is spoken by a roomful of genuinely unlikable characters imbued with toxic, unbridled testosterone and deeply-rooted anger management issues, who say a lot but never what they mean and never to fruition.
It is a remarkable thing.
In this play, the playwright sets out to expose the savagery of capitalism by exploring the pressure-cooker world of unscrupulous real estate salesmen in Chicago. It takes place in the 1980s, a time when the American economy was suffering through a deep recession. The men who populate this play have the unenviable job of selling something people don’t want and can’t afford, and to close the deal. And in an office competition that has just been handed down by management, first prize for the highest-grossing closer by the end of the month is a new Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is the door and the hope of employment elsewhere.
The fast-paced first act takes place in a Chinese restaurant where, in a series of two-handed vignettes, we are introduced to the main characters, the language they speak, and the stuff they are made of.
We first meet Shelly “The Machine” Levene (Austin Pendleton), a long-of-tooth salesman in an epic slump in need of better sales leads and a little compassion from the office manager, John Williamson (Andrew Gorell). The deliciously passive-aggressive Williamson has neither to offer as Levene alternately begs, amidst stutters and verbal missteps, and threatens in spurts of demeaning, self-defeating desperation.
Next up is David Moss (Brian Pedaci), a disgruntled employee who is missing the gene that generates subtlety but has the ability to put his words in others’ mouths. He is seeking retribution with the unlikely assistance of George Aaronow (Chris D’Amico), a pathetic colleague of wide girth and no backbone.
This is followed by an intriguing, one-sided conversation between the cocky, smooth-talking Richard Roma (Christopher M. Bohan), the office’s top salesman, and an easy mark (Stuart Hoffman) who nervously sips his gimlet in stunned silence while having smoke blown up his skirt.
For all their boisterous sound and flailing fury, these men are small and insignificant outside of their limited realm – a reality represented by their getting lost in the restaurant’s overstuffed, high-back booths and dwarfed by the garish floor-to-ceiling curtains beautifully designed by Cheri DeVol and accentuated by Trad A. Burns’ dramatic lighting.
The second act takes place in the Real Estate Office, a den of thieves where the salesmen’s competitive nature, sense of entitlement and worst personality traits are laid bare. As they arrive for work, each salesman is met by Detective Baylen (John Busser) and asked into the manager’s office for interrogation about an overnight robbery.
Once again, designer DeVol outdoes herself by having the office walls intersect at awkwardly acute angles with windows that introduce no source of natural light. Her remarkable eye for realism and costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib’s period-perfect fashion sense are co-stars in this production.
For the actors, this play must be a dream and a nightmare. The material is rich and the characters are drawn with intriguing complexity, but the dialogue and its unique rhythm must be among the most difficult to memorize and master. Both are accomplished by this outstanding veteran ensemble of players. Director William Roudebush need only get out of their way during the rehearsal process, but his vision, sharp sense of humor and attention to detail are very much in evidence in every aspect of this fine production.
Audiences should feel free to applaud the renowned Pendleton upon his act-one entrance, considering his impressive Broadway acting and directing credits and his high visibility on TV and in film. But you will find that this cast is chockful of closers who deserve the same attention.