Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross, at the Gamm Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Glengarry Glen Ross has all the trademarks of a David Mamet play: staccato dialogue, lots of profanity, brimming with testosterone. And then there was something I didn't expect: I felt a great deal of empathy.

Mamet's Chicago real estate salesmen, desperate for the "good leads" on buyers for their dubious property, play fast and loose with legal and ethical business practices. I'm not sure I'd want to be in the same office with them.

Yet, there's something that touched me about these men who are trying to make a living in the world they know best. Glengarry Glen Ross encompasses the breadth of working life - from the young guy on his way up, to the hotshot in his prime, to the veteran who simply can't hack it anymore.

Tightly directed by Fred Sullivan Jr., the Gamm Theatre's production is very funny but with a sharp edge. Sullivan never lets a moment or a gesture go to waste. It's just as interesting to watch the characters who aren't talking as the ones who are.

The first act, which whizzes by, consists of three conversations in a Chinese restaurant in which we get to know the salesmen.

Sam Babbitt as Shelly "the Machine" Levene, years past his glory days, is heartbreaking. He practically begs Williamson, the office manager played by Marc Dante Mancini, for a list of prospects. Mancini is wonderfully expressive as he listens, getting more and more annoyed with a man old enough to be his father.

Then there's Dave Moss (Tom Gleadow) and George Aronow (Chuck Reifler), conniving to get their hands on the same leads. The fast-paced back-and-forth as they discuss their plan is classic Mamet and they pull it off beautifully.

Finally, we meet Ricky Roma (Tony Estrella), leader in the office contest to win a Cadillac for racking up the most sales. Estrella's Roma is so smooth and confident as he identifies a potential target, James Lingk (a mild-mannered Kelby Akin). It was riveting to watch him strike up a conversation that didn't seem to be about much of anything - then move in for the sell.

The second act takes place in the dilapidated real estate office. It's clear from Patrick Lynch's set design that these salesmen are not exactly masters of their universe. They work in cramped quarters with ancient metal desks and cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling.

They gloat over closing a sale like they've hit a game-winning home run. They're also bigoted and profane, duplicitous, cocky and at the same time, at the mercy of Williamson, the youngest man in the office, for their livelihoods.

My own brief stint in sales consisted of selling subscriptions to The Boston Globe over the phone while I was in college. I only did it for about a month. Cold-calling people to get them to buy something is a tough way to make a living.

And while Mamet's play was written in the 1980s, it certainly resonates in the United States of 2010. It made me think of all the people in foreclosure after being enticed to buy homes that they couldn't afford.

With a compelling story and characters who seem real, this is the Mamet I've been looking for but didn't find the previous two times I've seen his work onstage.

For anyone who's ever held a job, anyone who's ever been on either end of the buying or selling equation - in other words, all of us, there's a lot in Glengarry Glen Ross that resonates.

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