Nothing less than “Death of a Salesman” in the fast lane, David Mamet’s finest play, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” is driven entirely by competition. Appropriately, every second is filled by the sound of someone attempting one-upmanship. But the sheer zing of Mamet’s machine-gun dialogue can lead directors astray. Overemphasize rhythm, as most London Mamet revivals have done, and meaning gets lost. The secret, as James Macdonald’s expertly conducted production thrillingly reveals, is to focus instead on encouraging the actors to make the greedy, needy intentions of their characters as lucid as possible.
Mamet’s world of cut-throat real-estate hucksters jockeying for position on the sales board is succinctly established. Three first act duologues in Anthony Ward’s line of booths in a nondescript Chinese restaurant show the salesmen conniving and cajoling their way through typical encounters that delineate the characters and set up the plot.
The connection between tone and content is made manifest by the scene in which Dave Moss (a lethal Matthew Marsh) attempts to manipulate Paul Freeman’s terrified George Aaronow into robbing the office. “Are we talking about this?” quavers Freeman’s elderly Aaronow, suddenly understanding this seeming joke is nothing of the sort. “No,” comes the lying response, “we’re just speaking.”
Language is not just a conduit for these guys: They live and die by their killer spiel. But Mamet’s gift is to understand that onstage, charged-up silence is equally important.
That much is clear in the crucial opening scene between failing salesman Shelly Levene (Jonathan Pryce) and Peter McDonald’s sales manager John Williamson. Crisply buttoned-up in a three-piece suit, McDonald’s Williamson intimidates through concentrated stillness. Barely saying a word or even moving, his measured silence becomes an ever more powerful ploy that allows Levene to hang himself with excuses for poor sales.
Unlike Jack Lemmon’s ever-more febrile turn as Levene in the movie version, Pryce keeps his powder dry, allowing desperation to set in only late in the play. Prior to that, he opens up a touching gap in the character. He shows Levene thinking he’s getting away with hectoring Williamson. But long before Levene clocks it, auds see that power really resides with his younger boss.
The payoff for Pryce not revealing his hand too early is particularly strong. Only when Williamson finally puts the thumbscrews on, asking for a $100 kickback upfront, does Pryce show reality hitting his character. Desperation strikes him in the solar plexus, and the horrible truth of his weak position breaks out like sweat on his brow.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a motor-mouthed Aidan Gillen delivers a glorious adrenalin surge of a performance as sales champ Richard Roma. Bamboozling naive James Lingk (a nicely nerdy Tom Smith) into a sale, Gillen’s Roma shows the fake bonhomie of a wheeler-dealer with a loathsome but guiltily entertaining charm.
Having wound everyone up in the tight flat space of the first act, helmer Macdonald then lets them all go in the relatively wide-open space of their unnatural habitat — Ward’s amusingly anodyne, beat-up office set, lit by fluorescent strip.
Among the wreckage, the rising and falling fortunes of the salesmen, all robbery suspects, are perfectly calibrated. Macdonald holds back from going for the jugular as the movie does — partly because he’s denied the possibilities of closeup. Yet his restraint doesn’t compromise either the zest of the writing or the drama’s sustained tension.
With memories of Joe Mantello’s 2005 Broadway revival still fresh, a trans-Atlantic transfer is exceedingly unlikely. But Macdonald’s bracingly sharp production is not only London’s strongest Mamet revival in years, it’s also one of the smartest shows in town.