The Theatreguide.London Review
Playhouse Theatre Autumn-Winter 2017
David Mamet's best-known play (thanks to the 1992 film), and arguably his best, here gets a polished but only partly successful revival, its limits largely the result of a casting choice.
The play embodies all of Mamet's recurring themes – the way conversations are used to disguise communication as much as produce it, the way men without women around use obscenity freely but not randomly, and above all, the way interacting in public or business spaces inspires identity-changing and role-playing.
In an American theatre dominated by family stories on living room sets, Mamet is the poet of the marketplace.
Here, Mamet's subjects are land salesmen, the sort who produce glossy brochures to get innocents to buy what is probably desert land in Arizona or swamp land in Florida. (The title refers to two of the 'communities' being hawked.)
The playwright lays before us the three overpowering facts of their lives – first, that they are good at what they do and have total contempt for anyone, from their customers to their office manager, who is not a salesman.
Second, however good they are, they are always running scared, only as successful as their last sale and in danger of being fired for the slightest falling-off. And third (and largely a result of the first two) they are never not-selling, always trying to get something over their prospects, their boss or each other.
What passes for a plot is built around a robbery in the office, but it is not where the play's attention lies. (And I have always felt its resolution is very clumsy, turning on a slip of the tongue that is not as significant as it is made to be).
What Mamet calls our attention to is the way these men cannot help thinking and acting like salesmen, even when it's not necessary.
The play opens with three unrelated conversations, between one salesman and the office manager, between two other salesman, and between what seem to be two random strangers in a bar.
But what we are actually seeing, we slowly and chillingly realize, is a textbook on selling, each scene involving somebody trying to wheedle, argue or con someone into something that will benefit himself and not his prey.
The action then shifts to the office, where one salesman revels in a big sale, another worries about his current slump and a third improvises frantically when his latest sale seems about to go bad.
And in incredibly rapid succession we see joy, anguish, admiration, disdain, camaraderie and betrayal as everyone's natural human responses to each other are quickly altered by what's-in-this-for-me thinking.
Though it's an ensemble piece, the play is largely a showcase for the actor playing Roma, the fastest-thinking and most cold-blooded of the men. Christian Slater gives him enormous charm, and we can see why he is such a successful salesman.
But – and here is where the play loses an essential dimension – he lacks the feral quality such previous Romas as Jack Shepherd, Joe Mantegna and Al Pacino have brought to the role.
There's no real danger about the man as Slater plays him, and danger is an essential part of Mamet's vision of men together.
(It is striking that a significant bit of dialogue near the end has been cut, when Roma suggests that he and a buddy partner and pool their commissions, and then moments later arranges with the boss to screw the other guy.)
Without that anchor in darkness, the play becomes unbalanced, with the comic moments – and there are many – dominating.
As I suggested, the dialogue is filled to the brim with obscenities, and the freewheeling foul language gets a lot of legitimate laughs.
But it becomes too easy to miss that the obscenities are not all that random – that, for example, the curses at the hated office manager are all denials of his masculinity in a world of real men.
And without Roma's darker side, our view of the second major character is warped. Levine is the guy who broke a slump with a big sale, and actor Stanley Townsend finds all the warmth and humour in the guy's celebration and conviction that he's got his game back.
But – spoiler alert – that balloon is going to be burst, and the play has been too lightweight for Townsend to be able to make the extend of Levine's collapse register.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a black comedy with even blacker undertones about the constant anxiety and desperation that fuel the American Dream. Director Sam Yates and his excellent cast find the comedy but miss much of the real blackness.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review