Laurence Green reviews David Mamet’s bitterly funny and acutely savage new play, Glengarry Glen Ross.
It may be over 30 years since it was first staged but David Mamet’s lacerating satire of the American dream Glengarry Glen Ross revived in an excellent new production, directed by Sam Yates at the Playhouse Theatre, still seems particularly relevant today.
The action is set in an office of cut-throat Chicago real-estate salesmen, where the only thing that matters is the deal and where everyone is in high-stakes competition against each other. It doesn’t matter what means you use to seal the deal – flattery, truth-massaging outright lies – what matters is that the contracts – which involve offloading supposedly prime properties to ‘suckers’ foolish enough to listen – get signed and the money ends up in the bank. As time and luck start to run out, the mantra is simple: close the deal and you’ve won a Cadillac, blow the deal and you’re in the firing line!
Mamet brilliantly depicts a world steeped in casual racism and homophobia, where manliness is measured in terms of success and other men’s vulnerabilities are ripe for exploitation. The joy of the play, however, lies in its language which ricochets between the characters like balls in a squash court. The scene in which the manipulative salesman Moss tries to cajole his apprehensive colleague Aaronow into a stealing the office leads shows Mamet’s mastery of language as a form of camouflage his deluded characters are nostalgic for a golden age of salesmanship when his job was synonymous with youth and virility, but those glory days never, in fact, existed.
Chiara Stephenson’s set is striking and rich in detail, impressively transforming from a red lantern-bedecked Chinese restaurant to a soulless sales office, recently ransacked and harshly lit, with uneven ceiling tiles, an ashtray and coffee pot.
Heading the first-rate cast is Hollywood star Christian Slater as Ricky Roma, the most ruthless operator in an office full of sharks. For a man steeped in heartless greed, you are what you sell and Slater, with a razor wire smile, masterfully shows how well slick talk can mask lies and viciousness. He is ably supported by Stanley Townsend as Shelly ‘the machine’ Levene, a man determined to prove he’s still got what it takes and the scene in which the pair schmooze up to con a buyer, out of cancelling his cheque is a delight. Also commendable are Don Warrington as the hang dog Aaronow, Mark Carlisle replacing an indisposed Robert Glenister, as the conniving Moss, and a barely recognisable Kris Marshall as the grimly determined, bespectacled office manager John Williamson, exuding the caution of a man who has never been exposed to the dubious technique of salesmanship.
A major work, then, on the American theatrical canon, it may lack the weight and depth of Arthur Miller’s landmark drama Death of a Salesman, but this bitterly funny and acutely savage play still pulls a powerful emotional punch.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Running at the Playhouse Theatre until 3 February 2018