Glengarry Glen Ross Crackles With Macho Energy

In 2216, theatre historians will study David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross as one of the most important plays of the second half of the twentieth century. You can find its influence in everything from Reservoir Dogs to Seinfeld to Mad Men. It’s an exquisite tale of salesmen trying to sell each other. Or, to put it more crassly, it’s a bunch of guys demonstrating that you can, in fact, bullshit a bullshitter.

Here’s the plot summary, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The play shows parts of two days in the lives of four desperate Chicago real estate agents who are prepared to engage in any number of unethical, illegal acts—from lies and flattery to bribery, threats, intimidation, and burglary—to sell undesirable real estate to unwilling prospective buyers.

That sounds kind of banal, but it’s Mamet’s gift to craft remarkable tension out of everyday circumstances. I just saw his newest play, Race, on Broadway. The entire play is more or less in real time, featuring two lawyers and a law student discussing whether or not to take a case. And yet–just like Glengarry Glen Ross–you’re enthralled after six lines of crackling dialogue. Mamet is also a master of power dynamics, and so is an actor’s playwright.

On Wednesday night, I was invited to attend the Arts Club’s production of this contemporary classic–an appropriate phrase, even if it has been exhausted of its meaning. It was a very strong show–the best I’ve seen at the Arts Club for some time. Director Michael Shamata (over from the Belfry) and the performers have strong material to work with, and they handle it well in front of naturalistic, functional sets by Kevin McAllister.

The sets were full of subtle details, like an air conditioner above a door or pipes in the ceiling. I loved how the round tables in the first act setting, a Chinese restaurant, are inexplicably hinged down at the front. I guess the line they create reflects the proscenium arch of the stage (and a faux arch of the restaurant), and they draw our eyes upwards. They don’t make any practical sense, yet the decision feels right. Both photos are by Emily Cooper, and, as always, click to enlarge:

Much of the buzz around this production is focused on Eric McCormack, he of Will & Grace fame. Bringing famous film and television actors to the stage can have mixed results, but McCormack apparently drew on his years spent as a young actor at Stratford.

McCormack plays Ricky Roma, the macho alpha dog in the office. Al Pacino played this role in the great 1992 movie of the same name, and McCormack seems to occasionally be channeling the elder actor’s physicality in the role (perhaps that’s inevitable, given Roma’s slick machismo). Still, there were a few minutes where I forgot that I was watching a famous TV actor, and that’s to his credit.

The whole cast was excellent, actually. The script is ridiculously pacey and dense, and the performers didn’t hit every single note in it. Mamet’s dialogue is very challenging (that’s why when he directs movies, he tends to use a lot of the same actors), and the cast will probably discover more of the script’s tiny details and cadences after a few shows.

There’s really very little not to like about this production–it makes for a funny, gripping night at the theatre.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs through August 22 at the Stanley Theatre. Go here to buy tickets.

A Few End Notes

A few vaguely related notes:

  • Unusually, the production’s second act is considerably longer than its first. Keep this in mind if you drink a lot at intermission.
  • I’ve recommended some of them before, but you pretty much can’t go wrong with any film Mamet writes and directs. My favourite is Spartan (pretty much, as it happens, Kristen Bell’s film debut), but I’d also recommend (in descending order) The Spanish Prisoner (Campbell Scott is, I think, one of Hollywood’s more under appreciated actors), Heist and Redbelt. Of course, there’s a bunch of great movies written by Mamet but directed by others, such as Wag the Dog and Ronin.
  • There’s a monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross that, to my mind, is the finest sales pitch of the last hundred years. I haven’t heard them all, but I don’t think I’ve heard better. Pacino performs it (rated PG for language) with exquisite attention to detail:

UPDATE: I contacted the show’s director, Michael Shamata, to ask him about the tables. He explained that there were two reasons:

1. every Chinese restaurant that i have ever been in has drop-leaf tables
2. it allowed us to bring the booths as far downstage as possible and still allow the front row to see the actors

One comment

  1. I absolutely love State and Main, with William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others. It’s fun, witty, and very well put together.

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