It’s rare that the intermission men’s room line outstretches the ladies’ in a Broadway theater, so the fact that this is happening at the Royale seems a testament to the penetrating heightened veracity with which David Mamet captures a certain brand of ferocious guy culture in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Unlike other celebrated plays of the 1980s, this stinging swim through the shark tank of a Chicago real estate office has only sharpened its currency two decades on, and in his crackling revival, director Joe Mantello and an exceptionally well chosen cast bring exacting detail to every bruising observation of a playwright in peak form.
Many of the bullish, broad-shouldered frames and gray suits stuffing themselves into theater seats seem to have been drawn to this production by their affection — if that’s the right word — for James Foley’s 1992 film version. One such cluster on the first press night was heard lamenting the absence of Alec Baldwin’s contemptuous supervisor character and his lacerating pep talk. But the pithy economy of Mamet’s drama of cutthroat wheeler-dealers is at its best in this undiluted form, clocking in with two blisteringly brisk acts that display not an ounce of fat.
While the milieu is specific, there’s a universality that extends here to any male-dominated work sphere in which camaraderie is only surface-deep and any semblance of interpersonal loyalty is prone to be sacrificed in favor of self-preservation or competitiveness.
In the high-pressure world of these salesmen, the stakes are as low as a $6,000 commission or, at best, a new Cadillac as a premium performance reward. But the play’s searing assessment of how people’s behavior and actions are rendered more brutal by survival instincts seems applicable at any level of the economic scale. Likewise its wishful but ultimately hollow revenge fantasy of tearing down the white-collar paper pushers with no concrete experience of life in the trenches.
Taking place over a single 24-hour stretch, the play focuses on a group of brokers hustling Florida real estate of dubious value from the same office. The team’s overall poor performance is redeemed only by hot-shot Ricky Roma (Liev Schreiber), number one on the sales board and first in line to receive the car. But even cocky Roma seems subconsciously aware it’s merely the luck of a hot streak that separates him from his struggling colleagues.
All of them are salivating to get their hands on the Glengarry leads, a roster of prospective new clients that promises to reverse the standing of even the lowest men on the totem pole. Those leads disappear when the office is robbed overnight, casting suspicion on the entire crew.
Mantello’s production superbly delineates the play’s moods between the pungent, acerbic humor of the first act’s trio of two-hander scenes and the darker turn of the second act, when the vulnerabilities of these desperate, angry men are uncovered like festering wounds.
This delineation is imposed not just tonally but visually in Santo Loquasto’s stunningly differentiated sets for each act and in Kenneth Posner’s lighting. Act one takes place in a Chinese restaurant, its sumptuous red lacquer decor and enormous rear aquarium — albeit without a single sign of life — boxed into the central stage area and bathed in soft, dim light. The show curtain goes up on act two to reveal a startling transformation, with the full stage now occupied by a meticulously detailed real estate office, messy and impersonal, lit by unforgiving fluorescents. The absence of cell phones or computers adheres to the original ’80s setting.
All six of the principal characters are defined with crystalline incisiveness by actors who slam Mamet’s profane ricochet of dialogue back and forth with the aim and aggression of Wimbledon champions.
Unlike Jack Lemmon in the movie, who sketched the sad, exposed edges of his character from the outset, Alan Alda makes veteran salesman Shelly “The Machine” Levene something of a wormy, whiny figure, refusing to play for sympathy. Shifting restlessly up and down the restaurant banquette — in contrast to Frederick Weller’s cold office manager Williamson, nailed to the spot — and bristling with visible impatience when forced to wait for his turn to talk, Alda’s Levene is made no more likable by his run of bad luck. In fact, his insistence on lauding his own past glories is ingratiatingly self-aggrandizing, yet his ultimate humiliation and defeat echo with cruel pathos.
Perhaps even more impressive is Schreiber, who boldly erases any residue of either Al Pacino in the movie or Joe Mantegna in the original Broadway cast as supremely confident Roma. His gestures indicate an assertive, decisive man rarely if ever given cause to doubt himself, and the choreographed precision of the actor’s body language works tirelessly to convey Ricky’s refined sleaze, his manipulative artistry, his arrogance and fastidiousness through constantly fussing with his clothing. The verbal pummeling he gives Williamson when the latter’s imprudent intervention costs him a sale is so vicious that the laughter it provokes is dictated more by fear than by anything else.
As Dave Moss, Gordon Clapp lets the rancor ooze from him like sweat in a flawlessly timed perf, making the man’s volatility and thuggish, confrontational style both a cartoon and a bitter reality. Jeffrey Tambor strikes a resonant note as less prickly George, trailing on the sales board and aware his low stock is probably irredeemable. The volleyball zing of Dave and George’s dialogue in act one as they bounce their resentments off each other is played to perfection, like the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of disgruntled workers.
An almost unrecognizable Tom Wopat plays the small but vital role of James Lingk, the submissive mark whom Ricky first mesmerizes with empty self-realization doubletalk before reeling him in to seal the deal. Wopat’s anxious determination when he returns to the office to renege on the agreement is painful to watch, growing increasingly unnerved as Roma attempts to sway him by discrediting the cautiousness of Lingk’s wife.
While his performance would be considered strong in almost any other ensemble, the one element that falls marginally short of the general standard is Weller, whose emotionless Williamson — as still and centered when absorbing abuse as he is when mapping his next move — lacks the authority of his colleagues. However, this may come as the normally compelling actor settles into the role.
A production even finer than the season’s other all-male ensemble piece, “Twelve Angry Men,” this smart, energetic revival continues the formidable run of Mantello, whose work in the past three seasons on such diverse shows as “Take Me Out,” “Wicked,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Assassins” and Mario Cantone’s “Laugh Whore” confirms an astonishing range, consistency and implicit trust in his material, unequaled among his peers.