If Glengarry Glen Ross is about one thing, it’s about talking. Not ‘talking’ in the sense of ‘talking over issues’ or ‘talking about feelings/relationships’, not talking as in ‘shooting the breeze’ or ‘chewing the fat’, but ugly, desperate, jittery talking – talking as a weapon, as a means of survival.
If Glengarry Glen Ross is about two things, it’s about talking and desperation – it is a play about salesmen. This often leads to comparisons being made to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the two plays certainly share a cynicism about the long term effects of sales work on the human (particularly male) psyche. But where the latter play is melancholy and languid and lyrical, this work is nasty, brutish and short.
This production, amazingly the first of Mamet’s works to make it to the Steppenwolf mainstage, is about as tight and note-perfect a staged version of this play as you could hope to see; its artistic success or failure must depend, therefore, on the individual audience member’s feelings about the text itself – and it is not an easy text to like.
The play introduces four struggling salesmen at various stages of their careers, all employed by the same Chicago real-estate office. The first act, only 45 minutes in length, consists of three short scenes set in the Chinese restaurant that serves as a de facto extension of the office itself. Here Shelly ‘The Machine’ Levene (veteran Mamet actor Mike Nussbaum), the closest character this play has to Miller’s Willy Loman, is pleading with middle management stooge John Williamson (Tracy Letts) for a couple of hot sales leads. Levene is a former hotshot, now aging and in the midst of a long “losing streak”, and throughout the play Nussbaum expertly shows the glimmer of dignity remaining in this man who has been desperate for a break for so long that he’s no longer sure he’d know what to do with it if he got one.
Next up are Dave Moss (Matt DeCaro) and George Aaranow (Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder), discussing at first in the abstract, and then suddenly in the concrete, the notion that someone should steal the leads from the office. Their fifteen-minute exchange, while expertly timed and achingly funny, is so heavily littered with Mamet’s familiar stylistic tics – the interruptions, the evasiveness, the ellipses, the repetitions – that it almost feels like parody.
No-one writes dialog like David Mamet, and this is not always a good thing. His lifelong love affair with the naturalistic patterns of American speech has led to the creation of a whole new adjective – Mamet-esque (often applied to snappily written TV shows like Sports Night, NYPD Blue and The West Wing). The problem arises when, in the pursuit of ‘naturalism,’ his characters start to sound more like cookie-cutter David Mamet characters than like human beings.
As if to address this concern, Mamet then introduces Richard Roma (David Pasquesi, looking like Ichabod Crane in a sharp suit). Roma is introduced with what must rank as one of the weirdest monologues in theater history. This is not a criticism, merely a fact – not a word that comes out of Roma’s mouth, as he sits nursing a cigarette and ostensibly putting the moves on a possible customer (Peter Burns), sounds like anything else in the play. In the wrong hands, this rambling meditation on morality and hell and the smell of train compartments can fall in on itself, a random series of disconnected musings. Pasquesi almost makes some sense out it, though. In a play about talking, his success as a salesman is shown to be his ability to open his mouth and speak, even to speak nonsense, with seductive authority. When he moves over to the customer’s table at the end of the scene, the effect is that of a tall, suave Count Dracula swooping on his hypnotized victim – his handshake has teeth.
The second act is one continuous scene, taking place in the sales office the following morning. A crime has occurred and investigations are underway. Derek McLane’s set and Pat Collins’ lighting here are both fabulous, with neon strip lighting, dying potted plants and unpainted wallboard showing the place for the fly-by-night operation it really is. The night this reviewer attended, the office’s back wall jammed in transition and could not be immediately slid into place, so when the lights came up at the beginning of the second act, the audience was looking at a perfectly recreated office space, abruptly dropping off into the concrete recesses of the Steppenwolf backstage area. The problem was eventually rectified, but this glimpse of artificiality actually heightened the effect of the second act in a strange way – calling attention to the fact, so cleverly disguised by writer, actors and set designers, that the audience was watching a play, not just a bunch of foul mouthed hucksters at the office.
As events play themselves out, the desperation at the play’s heart begins to show. In Death of a Salesman Miller showed Willy Loman’s crackup largely in a domestic setting, surrounded by his concerned, uncomprehending, family members. Mamet puts four Willy Lomans in a cage, and then stands back as they pace nervously, occasionally snapping at one another like jackals, with no other world in sight. These men do not have time to worry about being “liked” or “well liked,” their eyes are all on the magic ‘board’ – Who’s on top? Who’s not bringing in the sales? Who’s going to win the Cadillac?
So why should anyone sit through this foul-mouthed, mean-spirited exercise in gray-collar backstabbing? Apart from the bravura acting on display, especially from Nussbaum as Levene and Pasquesi as Roma, this is a play that seems as relevant today as it was in 1984 when it was written. The U.S. is heading into an economic ‘downturn,’ with Americans forced to work harder and harder, take less and less time off, compete every day to beat out coworkers and avoid the dreaded downsizing epidemic. In such a climate, Glengarry Glen Ross can be seen as a cautionary tale, a blistering, blustering look at the pursuit of the almighty dollar as national pastime.