Saturday, February 10, 2007

Glengarry Glen Ross: 6th @ Penn’s Workmanlike Performance of a Modern Classic


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

My first exposure to Glengarry Glen Ross — and to the work of David Mamet in general — came when I saw the film version in 1993, a year after its release, at the old Guild Theatre in Hillcrest when it was in its last days, being operated as a house for major U.S. releases at the tail end of their theatrical runs. I went into the theatre having read a piece about Mamet that praised his plays for their “well-turned dialogue,” and after I left the film I had the impression the material was powerful and theatrical but also didn’t see what I’d just seen and heard on that screen had to do with “well-turned dialogue.” The lesson seemed to be that if I ever wanted to write a play and be praised for my “well-turned dialogue,” all I had to do was make every other word an obscenity.

It’s true that — as a friend of mine told me afterwards — it would have been utterly ridiculous to make the pathetic, driven, desperate real-estate salesmen who make up most of the dramatis personae of Glengarry Glen Ross talk like characters in a play by Noël Coward (who’s still the playwright that comes first to my mind when I hear the phrase “well-turned dialogue”). It’s also true that any stage company that takes up Mamet’s 1984 play now is going to be competing with the memory of the 1992 film, not only because director James Foley and the usual committee of producers assembled an all-star cast, including Jack Lemmon as over-the-hill salesman Shelly Levene and Al Pacino as current hotshot Ricky Roma, but also because, in adapting his own play for the screen, Mamet considerably improved it.

The movie Glengarry Glen Ross begins with one of the characters on his way to the office of the real-estate company where he and most of the other characters work, then cuts to a sequence in which Blake (Alec Baldwin), a high official of the company, delivers a Wall Street “Greed is good”-like speech in which he explains that they’re having a sales contest and, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? [Holds up prize] Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Blake doesn’t even exist in the play — Mamet added him for the film — and the stage version begins in a tacky Chinese restaurant near the office where most of the salespeople have their lunches, either alone, with each other or with their clients.

Mamet’s stage version suffers from the fact that we don’t see these people first in their work environment even though work is clearly the most important thing about their lives — indeed, the only important thing about their lives; aside from Levene’s grown daughter (represented only by a lot of mentions of her in the dialogue and a photo of her he keeps on his desk, but which we are not allowed to see) none of these men seem to have families or any other interests outside the office and the pitiless grind of commission-only sales work. It’s a strong play — it did win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for its year — but the stage version is just a knock on the real-estate industry whereas the film script broadened it to a critique of capitalism itself.

The plot deals with four increasingly desperate salesmen (and they are all men; no women appear as characters in this play) for an unnamed company dealing in retirement estates in Florida and trying to extract the life savings of elderly couples to sell them lots in fancifully named developments that exist only as blueprints on paper. The script’s grimmest — and funniest — joke is the whole idea of a community called “Glengarry Highlands” in Florida: a marvelous commentary on the utter meaninglessness of brand names and how they’re concocted to create an image for a product regardless of what the words in the names mean in plain English.

Shelly Levene (Jonathan Dunn-Rankin) is the company’s veteran, a former hotshot who boasts that he was once such a fantastic producer that he kept the place in business and put his daughter through college with his earnings. Now, however, he’s either on a cold streak (his own explanation) or is burned out completely (everybody else’s). Ricky Roma (Jonathan Sachs) is the current golden boy, well ahead on the chalkboard in the race for that Cadillac (and to dodge the pink slip awaiting the third-place finisher in that contest). Dave Moss (played by 6th @ Penn’s producing artistic director, Dale Morris) is avuncular, mediocre and weighing a job offer from a competitor. George Aaronow (Haig Koshkarian) is pretty much along for the ride, dragging up the rear on the chalkboard (though Levene hasn’t made a sale in so long he isn’t on it at all) and alternately flirting with Moss’s schemes and trying to duck blame for them.

The other characters include an office manager, Williamson (Ash Fulk), who goes throughout the play with a frown of disdain Fulk retained even when he took his curtain call (doesn’t this man ever smile?) and who makes his contempt for the people who work for him and generate the income to pay his salary all too clear; James Lingk (Joey Georges), the only actual customer we see; and Baylen (played by an actor identified only as “B.J.”), a police officer who investigates a burglary on the office in Act Two. The device the story revolves around is the “leads,” the papers giving the names, addresses and phone numbers of potential customers along with some idea of just how likely they are to buy, and for which the salespeople are willing to bribe, steal or, we suspect, worse.

Without the magnificent prologue Mamet added for the film version, the debt Glengarry Glen Ross owes to Arthur Miller in general and Death of a Salesman in particular is a good deal clearer in the stage original. Even the names of the central characters, “Shelly Levene” and “Willy Loman,” sound similar. But whereas a large part of Miller’s tragedy lay in the effect Loman’s failure as a salesman has on his family, Mamet couldn’t care less about family. What turns him on is the intensity of the pressure surrounding these men and the extent to which the audience can be manipulated to feel sorry for them and root for them even while being totally aware of the scumminess of the business they’re in. When Lingk, Roma’s latest customer, comes in and asks to be let out of his deal, apologetically saying, “It’s not me, it’s my wife,” we’re not sure whether to hate this unseen woman for gumming up Roma’s deal or like her for keeping her husband from a rotten business transaction that will cost both of them big-time. (It’s also an indication of how Mamet feels about women: either they’re opportunities for recreational sex or harpies who get in the way of the alpha males he loves to write about.)

Glengarry Glen Ross gets a good production from 6th @ Penn. Dale Morris’s first-act set design, constructed by Vince Sneedan and Ian, is a simple table and lounge chair against a red curtain to suggest the Chinese restaurant, but the second act is a convincing presentation of an office that takes up virtually all the small theatre’s playing space. (The opening performance February 9 was so overbooked the theatre had to bring out portable chairs to seat the last few audience members in front of what’s usually their first row. After the intermission, the poor souls sitting in these seats were suddenly confronted by the disappearance of all their leg room.) The direction by Jerry Pilato and Bryan Bevell (a San Diego theatre veteran who returned from Minneapolis to serve as this production’s “dramaturge,” an all-purpose theatre term that in this case seems to have meant co-director) is taut and fast-moving, and in a strong cast it’s Jonathan Dunn-Rankin who stands out. Playing the only character who actually seems to change, he’s closer to Brian Dennehy than Jack Lemmon as a physical type, but his age, size and deliberately bad dye job on his hair perfectly equip him to play the burned-out salesman who’s taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride by the events of the story.

Ash Folk’s Williamson has the arrogance of his character down cold — when the others upbraid him for never actually having been in the sales trenches it’s hard not to see their point — and Jonathan Sachs’ Roma is a strutting cock-o’-the-walk, though even he gets a few feathers plucked before the night is over. If the other actors aren’t as well defined, blame David Mamet for giving them less interesting characters — though Joey Georges does a nice job in Act Two as the befuddled customer caught between the high-powered salesman and the decent (unseen) wife back home. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play worthy of its (and Mamet’s) reputation, and overall 6th @ Penn’s production is worthy of the play.

Glengarry Glen Ross plays through Sunday, March 18 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $23 and can be purchased by phone at (619) 688-9210 or online at