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NEW YORK – In his toxic cauldron of testosterone and ferociously male survival instincts, Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet shows with scalding humor, savagery, and ideally with a glimmer of pathos the ugly evolution of the Willy Lomans of the world in the decades since Death of a Salesman. First seen on Broadway in 1984, Mamet’s tight-as-a-drum drama should still retain its bite, but it never quite catches fire in this latest revival. Allowing the play to be twisted from an ensemble piece into a platform for Al Pacino, an actor not averse to showboating, director Daniel Sullivan and his producers have done a disservice to the Pulitzer-winning work.
Much has been written about the controversial decision to delay the official opening by a month, citing a couple of rehearsal days lost to Hurricane Sandy as the reason. Skeptics in the theater community have not been shy about suggesting a more cynical agenda: With the play already in previews and generating stellar box office on the strength of Pacino’s name, why risk tepid reviews? The fact that many New York theater critics still have vivid recall of the knockout 2005 revival (from the same lead producer) that starred Liev Schreiber and Alan Alda adds fuel to those suspicions – particularly when this new incarnation fails to measure up.
That’s not to say it’s a complete misfire. It’s just not great. And given that Mamet’s arrogantly alienating new play, The Anarchist, posted a closing notice last week just two days after opening to blistering reviews, an exceptional production of Glengarry might have helped remove some of that tarnish.
So what went wrong? Sullivan is certainly an accomplished director. He has the required lightness of touch to lure us into the sleazy arena of Mamet’s unscrupulous flimflammers, selling Florida real estate of dubious value. The agility of the writing keeps us attuned to every nuance of their behavior, be it pathetic, scared, manipulative or despicably dishonest. More crucially, the play even engenders the necessary perverse affection for these shysters.
Mamet’s characters now look even more like small-time losers when weighed against the rampant culture of corporate criminality and pitiless downsizing that has blossomed since they were created. Eugene Lee’s set design underlines the shabbiness of these men’s lives, making their lunch haunt the tackiest of Chinese restaurants and their office a low-rent space a million miles from the gleaming towers of success.
The production packs some heat in the performances of Bobby Cannavale and John C. McGinley, along with assured work from David Harbour, Richard Schiff, Jeremy Shamos and Murphy Guyer. But their collective efforts are not enough to make the somewhat routine staging crackle. It’s slack and short on electricity, which may be due to its fundamental imbalance. Glengarry Glen Ross was never built as a star vehicle for the actor playing Shelly “The Machine” Levene – not for Robert Prosky in the 1984 U.S. premiere, or Jack Lemmon in the 1992 film, or Alda in the 2005 revival.
In his first scene, wedged into a booth at the Chinese restaurant, Pacino’s Shelly more or less hits the right marks in his wormy negotiation with office manager John Williamson (Harbour) for premium buyer leads. Alternately cajoling and demanding, he’s a shameless weasel, belligerently aggressive one minute and a falsely humbled martyr the next. Dismissing his abysmal sales record of late as a mere bad luck streak, Shelly bloviates about his glory days as the office’s top seller, failing to recognize that yesterday’s success is soon forgotten in business. While the underlying whiff of desperation could be stronger, the performance is effective enough.
But from the moment Shelly bursts through the office door in the second act, bouncing about and crowing with cocky self-congratulation over having closed a big-money sale, Pacino is all mannerism. He piles on the physical and vocal tics to such a degree that almost all traces of Shelly’s vulnerability as a man trapped into a reckless act are erased.
Sullivan proved an excellent director of Pacino in their last collaboration on The Merchant of Venice, finding fragility in the actor, which is not often among his keynotes. Many in the audience no doubt are paying to see “Hoo-hah!” Pacino-isms, and they will perhaps be satisfied. But his spin on the role makes the play’s ending hollow, diminishing its doleful sting.
Pacino famously played reigning office hotshot Ricky Roma onscreen. Given that Ricky will inevitably one day become another Shelly, the casting makes sense. But the failure to mine that trajectory to expose the character’s frightened core is a disappointment.
Unlike the mixed blessing of Pacino’s star wattage, Cannavale’s dynamic work as motor-mouth Ricky sizzles. Whether turning on the oleaginous charm to reel in a patsy, or furiously dressing down Williamson for speaking without thinking, Cannavale takes unequivocal possession of the role. With his Guido-style slicked hair, crisp shirts, cuff links and pinky ring, he’s the epitome of vulgar success. He’s sure enough of his winning qualities to be amiable with his competitors and even generous in his support of Shelly’s self-aggrandizement. But he keeps one ice-cool eye on the prize at all times.
Keeping pace with Cannavale is McGinley, absent from Broadway since 1985. Frequently purple-faced with rage as he spews fountains of expletives, his Dave Moss is every bully who ever watched anxiously as his edge slipped away, prompting crafty measures to regain the advantage while shoving someone else into the firing line. That spot initially appears reserved for Schiff’s George Aaronow, a miserable schlub who also gets his chance to bark.
Shamos (Clybourne Park) finds painful nuances in James Lingk, who returns to the office to renege on the deal he was suckered into by Ricky. Even while knowing he’s been duped, Lingk is acting on strict instructions from his wife, making him an emasculated figure in this world of men. Harbour also makes the most of the potentially thankless role of Williamson, absorbing abuse and resentment for much of the play, only occasionally erupting into retaliatory fury.
Even in an underpowered production, these guys are fascinating specimens to watch as they navigate the vicious fray of office politics. The same goes for Mamet’s tautly structured play. With its fusillade exchanges and fat-free set-up, it remains a model of dramatic economy. Too bad its nasty punch is a tad soft here.
Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 20)
Cast: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, David Harbour, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley, Jeremy Shamos, Murphy Guyer
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: David Mamet
Set designer: Eugene Lee
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, Luigi & Rose Caiola, Gutterman Chernoff, Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Amy & Phil Mickelson, Patty Baker, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Ken Greiner, Meg Herman, Kathleen K. Johnson, Stephanie P. McClelland, Harvey Weinstein, James Fuld Jr./Kirmser Ponturo Fund, Kit Seidel/Myla Lerner, Will Trice, GFour Productions, in association with RPMedia Company
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