After the recent revival of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice at the Menier, here comes another deeply masculine play, equally riddled with desperation. Over twenty years old now, David Mamet’s terse study of the world of real-estate salesmen is undimmed in its power and an edge of frenzy and fear is palpable in nearly every line of dialogue.
David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was written in 1983 and still carries a strong sense of aggression and anger with it; the oily lure of money coats everything in sight. The play concerns a group of salesman trying to flog Florida land-plots of dubious appeal, all chasing the vital ‘leads’ that might cement a sale and a chance to win a Cadillac and, more importantly, hang on to their jobs.
Contracts and cheques are all they care about, signatures are coaxed, coerced and manipulated out of people using every game going; there’s no tactic too low, no deception they won’t attempt.
Jonathan Pryce plays Shelly Levene, clearly once a white-hot salesman, though his magic touch has long since left him. He exudes panic and desperation in every gesture, still reveling in the past and unaware of how pleading and pathetic he has become. Your pity for him is tempered however by the knowledge (Pryce’s eyes light up, his posture improves, his whole demeanor changes when he reminisces about the beautiful moment of getting a sale) that when he was good, he was clearly just as ruthless as the younger, brasher Richard Roma, played by a superbly greasy Aidan Gillen. I really loved his dementedly aggressive performance, sweaty and volatile, a man who will latch on to a potential customer like a rabid animal. I also liked Peter McDonald’s turn as the calm but cold office manager.
This is the first stage production of this play I’ve seen, though the film version, starring Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, casts something of a long shadow. At times, especially in the earlier scenes of James McDonald’s production, it does seem the actors aren’t quite in sync with Mamet’s rapid, rhythmic use of language, but this impression soon passes.
The play is a short and powerful one. It runs to just over an hour and half, and this is including an interval, there presumably to allow for a dramatic second half set change. The first half consists of a series of booth-based conversations carried out in an anonymous restaurant, while the second half opens out the stage space to create a striking and detailed recreation of a grim American office space, a harsh, grey and unwelcoming room strewn with files and papers, the lighting making everyone appear more sickly and sweaty than they already do. Indeed, this switch between sets was considered dramatic enough to warrant its own round of applause on the night I saw it.
I must admit that Mamet’s work sometimes leaves me cold, it’s just too aggressive, too cock-centric for my liking, but this play is a lean, sharp, surgical thing, with a rattling love of language and a necessary sense of the absurd; it whips you into a bleak, brutal, utterly cynical world and spits you out the other side, leaving you feeling a more than a little morally mucky, but undeniably satisfied. The cast work well, verbally jousting with each other, egos exposed, and the whole thing still feels fresh and vital, even in the stuffy environs of a West End theatre.