Glengarry Glen Ross
By: Eugene Paul
Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale in a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross
(Photo credit: Scott Landis)
Two shows grossed over a million dollars a week ago. You might expect something like that for the box office of a hit musical. But one of those million dollar shows was a straight play: Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s not a new play; the original, Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production, in this same theater, occurred in 1984. We’ve seen splendid revivals since. Six months ago I saw a refreshingly good first Dublin production, completely different cast, director, setting, a sold-out run. Before the official opening here in New York, there were lines for tickets. Yes, it’s for the play but undoubtedly the depth of the draw this time is exponentially increased by the appearance of Al Pacino in what turns into the starring role among starring roles by his sheer presence. Deservedly so. Pacino has become one of the biggest box office theatrical draws in recent history and his appearance here with the same director, remarkable Daniel Sullivan, who directed him in his magnificent Shylock makes Mamet’s riveting play spellbinding.
It’s not a pretty play but until the Dublin production, I had assumed it was a particularly American play with its poisonous set of characters expressing their vicious values in language that at the time was shocking in its brazen coarseness. Prescient Mamet finding the universal in our common drive for survival at any cost. For that, at its core, is what makes his expertly crafted, cleverly doled out terse series of scenes so fascinatingly, so bitterly funny and compelling. We’re enjoying watching our better natures lie in the gutter. Pulitzer Prize, bingo. Would we ever behave like this? Heaven forfend. Er – yeaaahh – maybe. Would we ever talk like that? Hmmm. We do. Well, not all of us.
Glengarry and Glen Ross are two mystically magical real estate developments, carefully labeled to conjure up visions of rolling hills nostalgically enriched not only with nature’s glorious bounty but the goodness and rectitude of happy people like us living in comfort and harmony with each other in our chosen paradise. That’s what the names are supposed to evoke to potential customers, most of whom do not have the faintest clue they are those customers until these land sharks pounce. Shelly Levene (Pacino), Dave Moss (John C. McGinley), George Aaronow (Richard Schiff), and Richard Roma (Bobby Cannavale) all work for the bucket shop that sells worthless land in faraway climes to us unsuspecting suckers. Customers. Clients, that is, clients. Who are sung the siren song these salesmen spielers worm into their minds, plied with friendship and bonhomie as much as it takes to get them, them clients, to sign the precious contracts that obligate these dear pals to pay precious survival savings so that Shelly and George and Dave and Richard can get up on the board.
On the board means their sales are listed on a plain chalk board in their tacky office with their names alongside the amounts generated by their sales. The top salesman gets a Cadillac, the next to the top gets a booby prize and the bottom two get fired. Shelly, once their top salesman, is old and tired and not even on the board. To make sales, you gotta have leads, leads, names of potential buyers you contact and start singing to. John Williamson (David Harbour), the office manager, doles out the leads and thus the fortunes of the salesmen. They live or die by their leads. Shelly is dying. And all of them know that the really good leads are kept in the office under lock and key, the leads that can not only put them on the board but put them at the top. Cadillacs. To watch Richard Roma reel in a sucker is sickly satisfying. To watch Dave Moss try to sell George into robbing the office for the leads is more righteous but still sick. Salesmen are suckers for salesmen.
The office gets robbed.
In the aftermath playwright Mamet tosses the fates of his characters like a juggler tossing flaming balls in the air, keeping us constantly on edge with apprehension and delight. The air turns blue with Mamet language. And catharsis? Bile.
All of the production is superbly, tellingly executed. Eugene Lee’s settings, Jess Goldsein’s costumes nail the ideas as well as the details. And the actors? Wow. In this company of over achievers, Cannavale, Schiff, McGinley, Harbour stand out. And Pacino? He’s a symphony to watch, to listen to. He’s mesmerizing, using his own ageing instrument to play on Shelley’s plight, our plight, his life or death, our life or death, his survival, our survival. It’s frightening, And you can’t look away. Bravo, Daniel Sullivan, for a definitive production.
Glengarry Glen Ross (through January 20, 2013)
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or online at http://www.glengarrybroadway.com