“Glengarry Glen Ross”: David Mamet’s brilliant portrait of businessmen as crooks

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Glengarry Glen Ross” by David Mamet, produced by the Actors Theatre of San Francisco. Director: Keith Phillips. Assistant Director: Tiffany Mitchell. Technical Director: James Baldock. Set: Biz Duncan. Lights: Rachel Klyce. Costumes: Carole Robinson.

Shelly Levene: John Krause. John Williamson: Frank Willey. Dave Moss: Mark Bird. George Aaronow: Sean Hallinan. James Lingk: Randy Blair. Richard Roma: Christian Phillips. Detective Baylen: Carole Robinson.

Earlier this season, Keith Phillips of the Actors Theatre of San Francisco directed his brother Christian Phillips as Teach in a magnificently successful staging of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, a play that presents cheap crooks who believe themselves to be businessmen. Now, the brotherly team has repeated that success with a production of Mamet‘s Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that presents apparent businessmen who are actually nothing more than cheap crooks. In my opinion, these two plays represent the finest dramas of American business in the entire canon. In fact, I am such an enthusiastic fan of Mamet’s early plays that I wrote my graduate thesis (The Entropic World of David Mamet) on his work. (The only competition would be Arthur Miller‘s Death of a Salesman and All My Sons.)

The first act of the play consists of three seemingly unrelated encounters in a Chinese restaurant. First, older salesman Shelly Levene (John Krause) desperately tries to persuade a much younger office manager to provide him with premium leads. This is followed by a scene between two other equally desperate salesman, Dave Moss (Mark Bird) and George Aaronow (Sean Hallinan), in which one tries to persuade the other to break into the office and steal the leads. Finally, a third salesman, Ricky Roma (Christian Phillips), delivers a sales pitch to hapless mark, James Lingk (Randy Blair).

John Krause and Christian Phillips in Actors Theatre of San Francisco's production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Photo Credit: Actors Theatre of San Francisco

These initial scenes are written in Mamet’s characteristically (and actor-challenging) shotgun style, with overlapping sentences, rhythmic repetitions, half finished thoughts, interpolated obscenities, scripted pauses, and occasional inarticulate grunts. It is difficult to maintain clarity with this text, and Phillips’ cast does an excellent job of keeping the meaning clear and avoiding confusion. On opening night, they appeared to be a bit too careful which seemed to dampen the wild desperation and zest which would put these scenes over the top, but that should improve as the run continues.

In any case, any uncertainty of execution disappeared when Christian Phillips’ Ricky Roma began the monologue that opens with the peculiar confession, “all train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it…” and continues with an obscene, charming, outrageously funny and frankly irresistable tour de force of salesmanship culminating in a pitch for some worthless real estate. Phillips’ takes his time with the speech, finding every deliciously nasty nook and cranny as he dangles the bait at his victim and then painlessly slips in the hook. It is a delight to watch such a skillful actor having so much damn fun! Randy Blair partners him well as the bulldozed customer.

The plot becomes clearer in the second act, set in the real estate office the following morning, where it is evident that a robbery of the leads has taken place the previous night. Police Detective Baylen (Carole Robinson) is on the case. This act presents Mamet at his impressive best, with multiple overlapping scenes, complex twists, an almost farcical series of entrances and exits and moments of emotional extremity. Director Phillips keeps everything crystal clear and his cast powers through the material like a runaway locomotive.

This is a production that does full justice to Mamet’s difficult script, and showcases the company’s celebrated expertise in ensemble performance. And, of course, it scarcely needs pointing out that this is topical. Occupy Mamet!

Glengarry Glen Ross continues through February 24. For further information, click here.


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