by Margaret Croyden


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Glengarry Glen Ross: Nasty Men at Large
By David Mamet
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45 Street
Reviewed May 16, 2005 by Margaret Croyden

"Glengarry Glen Ross," is one of David Mamet's best plays. It was awarded the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Award in 1984 and this production is its first revival. I am happy to report that the terrific cast, directed by the brilliant Joe Mantello, work as a team, yet each role is cleverly delineated and portrayed individually . In this play all the men are rotten; all of them are salesmen who connive, steal, lie, sell false property under false circumstances, and are rotten to each other and to the poor fools who deal with them.

Mamet has caught the ambiance of this gang of salesmen (not as Arthur Miller did in his famous "Salesmen" which depicted the demise of a basically decent man), but as a gang of thieves with dirty mouths and dirty intentions. True they are caught up in the capitalist rat race, in a sell or starve mentality, in a competitive jungle that defines the worst of American culture. Mamet, true to his anger and hatred for their kind and their occupation, shows no sympathy for any of them. From his point of view why should he? Never a compassionate sentimentalist Mamet has always had a dark vision of life; no positive light shines on any of this characters; they are neither joyous nor hopeful. They are what they are: lower than animals in a cage.

Glengarry Glen Ross has a simple plot. The all male characters work in a fiercely competitive real estate office, fighting for the "leads" that would steer them to possible buyers. The "leads" dominate their daily lives, their conversations, their aspirations, their motives, their actions. Without "leads," they cannot sell, but before they are given the "leads" they need a high selling record. Those with a low score will get no "leads" resulting in no job, no income, no anything. So the catch-three rat race is on.

And so the plot thickens: one guy steals the leads in order to sell them; another lies to a client and loses money on the deal; a third is a patsy and gets involved in the theft; and all of them argue, scream, curse at one another in an effort to be top dog. The motto: sell or die. And some one will die--spiritually-- and some will go to jail, and some will win out, as someone always does, by chicanery and cleverness.

The astounding aspect of this play is David Mamet's ability to catch the tone, rhythm, and street talk of these unsavory men. The pace of his lines and the sheer intensity of the dialogue with its repetitions, pauses, and rapid fire delivery, can be compared to a long piece of poetry. As ludicrous as this might sound, the play's continuous four letter words and filthy curses are actually an ingenious accomplishment. Few playwrights can capture this kind of ambiance through language alone--this loud, harsh, foul, language resembling the rattle-tattle of a gun among gangsters that fit so perfectly with these ferocious people.

Joe Mantello knows how to direct Mamet and he knows how to cast his plays. There is hardly an imperfect moment. The actors: Alan Alda, Liev Schreiber, Frederick Weller, Tom Wopat, Gordon Clapp and Jeffrey Tambor are completely believable and handle the difficult lines with aplomb and brilliant timing. And many of them have a mouthful of lines to learn. Alan Alda in particular has the longest and most difficult part. The pathetic loser of the bunch, he is almost a sympathetic character, but in the end he is as bad as the rest. As an actor, Alda, however, is hampered by own nice guy quality that shines through despite the tawdriness of his character. Liev Schreiber is a perfect snake in the grass, and has terrific command on stage although his calling attention to his body movements --particularly his hands-- is somewhat disconcerting. Gordon Clapp and Jeffrey Tambor give the best performances, the latter as a frightened cat, the former as a brazen rat. Frederick Weller as the office sneak has the least number of lines, but his activities on stage and particularly his silences tell us plenty about his character.

I have sometimes been critical of revivals because many have lost their relevance and intensity over the years, but this production of "Glengarry Glen Ross" has gained in stature. It reminds us that David Mamet is a writer that retains the force and magnitude that time did not kill. At the end, the audience gave the cast the usual standing ovation, but this time, it was truly deserved.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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