Review by Aidan Ryan
Starring as the the title character in Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s “Macbeth” this summer, Matt Witten reminded us that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”
Life, in other words, is a sales pitch.
Or so it seems in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about an office of unscrupulous real estate salesmen faced with a workplace competition. The only goal is to close. First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Cue sound and fury.
The play is best known from its 1992 film adaptation, which was graced with the greatest ensemble cast ever caught on camera. The production running at Road Less Traveled Theatre now through November 19 is, like the film version, an outstanding ensemble performance. David C. Mitchell (Shelly “The Machine” Levene), Patrick Moltane (Dave Moss), David Marciniak (George Aaronow), and Matt Witten (Richard Roma), raving, ranting, boasting, joking, spinning, and wheedling their way through a fast-paced two act, two hour production. Their material is some of the most difficult ever written: the fragmentary ifs, buts, and sundry obscenities are an enormous burden for the individual actor to memorize; the scenes, which play out like a demolition derby of simultaneous monologues, with every character saying a lot and no character saying exactly what he means, are incredibly hard for the actors to execute as a unit; and the rhythm and sound-dynamics of the whole constantly threaten to run away or fizzle out, imparting something of the conductor’s accomplishments to any director who successfully pulls off this play.
The play opens with a scene Mamet added to his script for the film; in that version, Alec Baldwin plays a more powerful salesman (unnamed; “Blake” in the credits) sent from “downtown” to explain the competition to the office. Mamet set out to explore and expose the savagery of capitalism; but his distillation, in this speech, was so perfect that managers in many sales-driven fields still show this clip at orientations and PD seminars. As other stage directors following the film have done, Road Less Traveled’s Scott Behrend turns this into a monologue directed to the audience. Anthony Alcocer (uncredited) delivers this with gusto and conviction. He can’t match Baldwin’s physical presence – he wanders the stage before he begins, tapping his knuckles aimlessly on desks and walls (and drawing attention to an out-of-character hand tattoo that Behrend should not have overlooked); he appears like a man with time to spare, which is wrong. When he opens his mouth, though, he is outstanding. He nails Baldwin’s lines inflection by inflection, pause by arrogant pause, an act of imitation so perfect it becomes original. The scene functions as an invitation – we are supposed to feel the pressure, our insignificance; we are supposed to reflect with discomfort on the value our cars, our houses, our performance at work, and therefore our lives – and it works, sort of. We’re laughing, if a little bit nervously.
The first act, then, is a series of dialogues (or, again, monologue collages) between the salesmen, a prospective buyer (James Lingk), and the officer manager (John Williamson, played by Steve Brachmann with a delightful touch of Jared Kushner). All take place in a booth at a restaurant, with the players seated – and the act almost never lags, a testament to the power of Mamet’s language and the actors’ energy and chemistry.
Levene, in a slump, alternately begs and threatens John for better leads – all behind a noisy front of specious recollections from his better years, better decades. He’s a man whose patter is rapid but not rapid enough – he delivers his lines in an out-of-breath whine, like he’s being dragged through life by his polyester tie. Williamson, his interlocutor, is cold and inscrutable; the manager sells the salesman, and drives Levene into an impossible bargain – indifferently, cruelly, as if only to see if there is any genuine pride beneath all the old man’s bluster.
Moltane and Marciniak as David Moss and George Aaronow are sublime – their dialogue, in which a complaint turns into a plot which turns into a trap for one of the parties – is a masterful demonstration of the way language determines reality and the way capital coerces human minds and bodies.
Finally Matt Witten’s Richard Roma appears with James Lingk (David Hayes), a sucker. He’s not quite as forceful or sinister a presence as Al Pacino, who plays Roma in the film – but Witten is also more interesting. He’s bent on being the best, sort of like Witten’s Macbeth – if the Scottish striver started without any moral qualms. Roma’s strangely compelling ramble through sex, art, food, action, and philosophy captures the audience as well as the insecure Lingk. But we notice the uncontrollable trembling of Witten’s left hand, holding a cigarette. It may be unintentional, but it’s perfect, an indicator of hidden frailty that adds depth to every non sequitur turn of the conversation. The walls are red, the rain is pouring, the smoke is curling, and no one knows what time it is. “A hell exists on earth?” Roma asks. “I won’t live in it. That’s me,” he says – the irony evident only to us. He does, of course – and I’d venture that Witten’s Roma knows this better than anyone else.
In the age of Zillow, the basics of the play – an all-male real estate office fixated on index-card leads – seem a little dated. But RLTP has proven that the play is timeless – and ferociously relevant right now. Picking up on Arthur Miller’s more nuanced exploration of anxieties related to masculinity, work, and mechanization in “Death of A Salesman,” Mamet plays on Levene’s nickname, “The Machine,” to great effect in this play’s final moments. Levene’s fortunes have reversed for a second time when Roma, unawares, tells him, “It’s not a world of men, Machine,” and “The Machine, that’s a man I would work with, there’s a man.” Today artificial intelligence, smartphones, and the fact of mass manipulation through social media have reshaped our anxieties about the mechanization of modern life. But the question of work – what it is and why we do it – is still central in the American consciousness. Like these salesman we are all poor players, we are all walking shadows, strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage; we are full of sound and fury and we aren’t sure if anyone is listening: if there is someone out there, above us or behind the eyes we meet on the subway, at a Chinese restaurant, in the office, in bed, all we care is that they “sign on the line which is dotted.” All we want is to close; but as Glengarry Glen Ross demonstrates so powerfully, there is no final “closure,” and winning the Cadillac El Dorado “signifies nothing”: There is only the next sucker, the next sale, the next word in a neverending monologue. When Levene gloats to Williamson, “A man’s his job and you’re f*cked at yours,” he could, really, be speaking to any of us.
But the cast, crew, and director of this “Glengarry Glen Ross” production have done an excellent job. They’re closers.
Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult Language and Content.