GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS AT THE ARTS THEATRE
Watching a play by David Mamet is less like being an audience member and more like a spectator in a bruising boxing match. His 1983 play features four men constantly throwing verbal punches in a dog-eat-dog struggle for supremacy over which salesmen of a dubious land project can close the most lucrative deals. It is not an easy watch and this new production of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ is a suitable assault on the senses, not least the ears. Mamet is in the Caryl Churchill school of realistic dialogue delivered at furious pace; cross cut between antagonists, half uttered words and full blown expletives – a dense forest of f-words.
The short first half is set in a very 80s Chinese restaurant in some dingy suburb of Chicago – a brilliantly conceived set of tacky red lanterns, a well stuffed bar and Formica tables. Action is static but the word avalanche begins as we see three pairs of characters slug it out in turn. First up is Shelly Levine, an ageing salesman who has passed his sell-by date but like all the employees in the real estate business on commission dollars only. He is desperate for good sales leads but his business, represented by ice cool office manager Williamson, only rewards the successful men (and it is only men in this turbo changed, testosterone fuelled company). The rest like Levene have to make do with hopeless old leads which earn zilch commission. Mark Benton is convincing as the loud-mouthed, has-been Levine who will use any trick, including bribery, to get those life-saving leads. Yet his reading of Levine doesn’t quite reveal the tragic vulnerability behind the character in the way that, for instance, Jack Lemmon did so wonderfully in the film version of the play. That said Benton is a powerful presence and a good foil to Scott Sparrow as the unbending manager.
As the fur flew over this first encounter we next witness a similarly furious spat between two other failing realtors. Moss (Denis Conway) attempts to draw Aaranow (Wil Johnson) into a desperate plot to steal the good leads and sell them to a competitor. It’s not just financial gain but cold revenge in the air. The engagement is funny as the guileless salesman Aaranow is gulled into becoming a reluctant player in the proposed heist. It is one of the few lighter moments in this otherwise dark gladiatorial drama.
The final pairing is a virtual monologue by the most successful of the sales guys, the smooth talking, butter-wouldn’t-melt Ricky Roma (Nigel Harman) clearly heading for a fat commission and a bonus Cadillac. His pairing is the almost silent Lingk who is easy prey to Roma’s honeyed words. It’s how the big sell needs to be done. Don’t just sell land, sell yourself or at least a phoney version of yourself as the would-be buyer’s best friend. It is hard to watch like one of those nature programmes in which a wily lynx pursues a wounded gazelle.
The longer second half shows how the how the action plays out between the warring sales chaps, their animosity to the glacial ramrod-backed office manager and the consequences of the theft. The set miraculously changed to a ransacked and chaotic office; a sleazy world of false hopes and macho menace. We never get to explore the inner world of the men – there isn’t time under the furious torrent of bad language. It is hard, nay impossible, not to feel sympathy for these men trapped in a nightmare version of the American Dream. The acting throughout is first rate and all-too convincing. Heartless capitalism and its effect on flesh and blood is Mamet’s theme and if you are up to a ringside seat, don’t miss it.