With a real estate man in the White House as America’s Salesman-in-Chief, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s crisp 1983 evisceration of the common street salesman, takes on new weight. In their square suits and coarse speeches, not to mention their complete lack of scruples, the four low-rent property sharks stand for something much bigger than themselves and their lot today. They might be the detritus of the American Dream, but men of their ilk have risen to the top. They sold themselves to America and America bought in. Watch “Glengarry Glen Ross” closely and you start to see why. It shows us what’s at work beneath the art of the deal.
As Richard “Ricky” Roma, top-dog in the sales team and on the cusp of a Cadillac for hitting $100K’s worth of deals, Christian Slater is the epitome of that. He’s not the piranha that Al Pacino played in the movie, a man who’d sink his teeth into your savings and never let go. Slater’s far smoother than that, far more seductive. Fresh-faced and laid-back, with a diamond glint in his eye, he’s got something his older, run-down colleagues lack – confidence, ease, the semblance of youth. He oozes contentment and stinks of success, at least to the untrained nose. When he moves in on Daniel Ryan’s willing schmuck, Lingk, early on, he’s hypnotized his prey long before he talks shop. He’s a snake-charmer first, and a scorpion second.
In other words, he could sell you anything he wanted. As could his old mentor, Shelley Levine (Stanley Townsend), back in the day. These days Shelley’s past it, and having not closed a deal all month, he’s first seen badgering and begging his humorless line manager (Kris Marshall) for better leads on more willing schmucks. But Townsend, tougher than Jack Lemmon’s original Levine, gives us glimpses of the spells he once spun. When he recounts his long-awaited return to form, regaling his junior with the deal he’s just done, Townsend slips into this deep, velvety voice that could reduce anyone to putty. These men don’t just sell real estate, you realize. They sell futures. They sell security. They sell entire ideologies.
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In that, director Sam Yates’ staging is unusually sympathetic. It kicks against the machine rather than the cogs at work within it. Those cogs are, here, older than usual, rusted up and worn down by decades in the job. Levine isn’t the only old-timer facing the end of the road. Don Warrington’s meek George Aaronow seems all sorts of exhausted, while Robert Glenister’s Dave Moss has been ground down to gristle. Out of clenched-up frustration, he’s concocted a sorry scheme – to burgle the office and sell off the best leads. It’s a high-risk strategy, hence the presence of Oliver Ryan’s gun-holstered cop in their crappy little run-down office the next day.
But then, as Yates sees it, the job has driven these men to desperation, and desperation has driven them to clutch at any straw they can. It’s not that Slater’s Roma is any more awful than the rest. He’s just better at his job – and, when Lingk returns to attempt a refund on his property purchase, as per his rights, Slater’s sly evasion tactics show how little room the job leaves for either compunction or compassion. He succeeds because he looks the part, and then plays it better.
Because Yates makes quite clear that this is a performance – all of it. Chiara Stephenson’s office set, devoid of soft furnishings and design flourishes, gives us a glimpse of the chaos behind the scenes. It’s impossible to tell where the disruption of the burglary meets the day-to-day disarray. There’s a reason Mamet sets his first act in a cheap Chinese restaurant. The plush, inauthentic décor has no bearing on the quality of the food or the conditions of the kitchen. It’s all front – as are the salesmen themselves, and Townsend and Slater, in particular, let us see the performance: the salesman as showman.
That, of course, knocks into masculinity – another performance made of manspreading and the coarse language Mamet’s made his own. The play’s drama, not to mention its comedy, comes down to an attempt to keep up appearances and keep the show on the road. Deep down, it’s a farce doing its best to keep face.
West End Review: “Glengarry Glen Ross”
Playhouse Theatre, London; 786 seats; £125 ($165) top. Opened, reviewed Nov. 9, 2017. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.
An Ambassador Theatre Group, Act Productions and Glass Half Full production of a play in two acts by David Mamet
Directed by Sam Yates; Design, Chiara Stephenson; lighting, Richard Howell.
Robert Glenister, Kris Marshall, Daniel Ryan, Oliver Ryan, Christian Slater, Stanley Townsend, Don Warrington.