Writer: David Mamet
Director: Sam Yates
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“We’re a dying breed” super salesman Ricky Roma announces in the closing moments of David Mamet’s finest play, a statement about the end of the traditional salesman and the personal skills that died with them. Sam Yates’ touring production setting-up shop at the Richmond Theatre for a week is a powerful reminder that even though this play is over 35-years old, Glengarry Glen Ross remains a giant of American theatre and unarguably one of the finest plays of the twentieth century.
It began with a glitzy West End premiere in late 2017 with the still-sparkling star power of Christian Slater and Stanley Townsend in the titles roles, but if you missed it at the Playhouse Theatre then fear not because Yates’ fully recast production, in the midst of a 3 month UK tour, is every bit as good as it was, a sharp and engaging theatrical event that deserves its nationwide audience.
Set in a Chinese restaurant and the sales office of a real estate brokers, Glengarry Glen Ross is the story of a group of salesmen trying to balance performance-related pressures with the frustrations of office management who control their destiny. When important sales leads are stolen overnight, each man is questioned while their high-drama business starts to crumble around them.
Yates’ production has full command of Mamet’s wonderfully slick text. In just an hour and 45 minutes including an interval, the dialogue rattles out like a machine gun as tempers flare, and Yates brilliantly controls the escalating tensions as different combinations of men confront one another in adversarial combat. Mamet’s writing is full of masculine rhythms, the use of language spare and pointed as the insults flow while overlapping conversations create a pressure-cooker feel. It’s pure combat: salesman versus salesman; salesman versus customer; salesman versus manager, and it is glorious theatre.
Mamet’s short opening Act in the Chinese restaurant is a masterclass in character study and scene setting. Here the audience clearly feels the reek of desperation as Mark Benson’s luckless Shelly Levine begs Office Manager John Williamson for better leads. It is a full-on verbal assault from the moment the curtain rises, quickly followed by a diatribe from Denis Conway’s Dave Moss who manoeuvres hapless colleague George Aaronow into his plot with a pure salesman’s doublecross. Only Roma, the third occupant of the booth, is calm, in control and completely at ease with the patter he gives the unfortunate man at the next table. This Roma is a storyteller with a magical charisma that underlies his every success.
The restaurant scene hasn’t rectified any of its issues from the West End, however, and with no other visible customers, background music or even a waiter, it lacks atmosphere as well as requiring some clunky resets. Like the National Theatre’s Top Girls opener, it feels too much like a set, and the actors in the second scenario don’t do quite enough to imply their treacherous conversation may be overheard. There is also an unnecessary interval just 30-minutes in, one driven more by set-design issues than theatrical requirement.
But the conversations are gripping which Yates uses to impressive effect in the high-stakes second Act where comic moments interplay so well with the small grenades exploding at various intervals in a nicely balanced piece of drama that twists and turns as the power dynamics more rapidly between the angrily conflicted men.
Leading a very fine cast, Nigel Harman makes for an excellent and slippery Roma, a man who clearly puts on his charming sales chat as easily as his expensive camel coat. Living-up to Christian Slater’s very fine performance is no easy task, but Harman oozes oily charisma in the restaurant scene but really comes into his own in Act Two where the intense dark-eyed stare becomes a frightening barometer of mood. With a stylised New York accent, you can read the hunger of the former poor-boy-makes-good in his elongated vowels – a backstory incidentally Mamet doesn’t provide – while the simmering rage that slowly emerges as his dominance is tested is fascinating, dialogue bursting forth at a breath-taking rate.
Mark Benson’s Levine is equally layered, a bundle of desperation, fear and anxiety in Act One – the embodiment of Mamet’s major theme about the brutality of failure and the casting-off of the worthless in these environments. Later in the office, delighted by his own success Benson commands one of the few moments of stillness as he excitedly recounts the skills that secured his biggest sale in months, and Benson develops an excellent rapport with Harman in one of the play’s key scenes, a promise of what might have been if the men joined forces.
The supporting roles are richly played, Conway in particular as Moss is a fireball of anger and resentment, a middling salesman unable to topple the mighty Roma and resenting every second of it. Wil Johnson’s nervy Aaranow is just gullible enough to be Moss’ patsy, making you wonder how he ever survived this world, while Scott Sparrow’s officious office manager delivers his few lines with just enough antipathy to make it clear how much he too dislikes the arrogance of his sales team.
Mamet and Yates never spare the audience the ugliness of this profession, there’s casual racism and sexism, its aggressive, sweary and full of unchecked testosterone, yet for all its 35-years, the locker-room nature of Glengarry Glen Ross still feels as modern and relatable as it ever has, and ahead of the forthcoming premiere of the already controversial Bitter Wheat, Yates has delivered a very classy production of a truly great American play.
Runs until: 20 April in Richmond and then touring | Image: Contributed