Glengarry Glen Ross: To sell anything on commission, real estate in particular, involves grappling with risk. You stake your paycheck on your ability to sell garbage to strangers. Every salesman in the Independent Drama Society’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross pats themselves on the back for living such a risky life. But all of them hate it. They’re all looking for that edge – that way to avoid the risk and still reap the rewards. They want to bribe their manager for the hot leads, or go into business for themselves, or win the sales contest for this month (what about next?). And when their efforts don’t pay off – when they land on the wrong side of risk – they fall apart.
The first act consists of three vignettes: conversations between characters in a Chinese restaurant. “Conversation” is perhaps the wrong word, since each scene is dominated by one character: Levene (Phil Thompson), pleading for a break; Moss (Craig Houk), carrying his message through sheer bullying force; Roma (Michael Fisher), bowling a prospect over like a well-staged seduction. Each of these three inhabits their dialogue so naturally – a tall order, given the way Mamet writes – that you briefly forget you’re watching a performance.
Their scene partners, by contrast, play characters: Williamson (Jeremy Browne), the inflexible office manager; Aaronow (Michael Pevzner), the buffoonish drunk; Lingk (Bob Mussett), the rube out of his depth. When I say they’re “characters” I don’t mean they’re worse actors or worse roles than the others. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters; trying to play Shakespeare straight would sound odd. What it creates, instead, is a fascinating energy. You have your active characters – Levene, Moss, Roma. Each of them wants to close a deal: Levene wants to buy premium leads; Moss wants Aaronow’s cooperation in a crime; Roma wants to sell some property. Each of them delivers Mamet’s dialogue with effortless naturalism. And yet it’s their characters who are, in the context of the story, putting on an act. They’re selling. They’re playing a gambit. They execute one strategy, meet resistance, and then try another.
Thompson and Houk (as Levene and Moss) deserve particular praise here. Houk gives the role of Moss a brash townie confidence, playing up the Boston accent and the volume. He speaks with confidence about subjects he couldn’t possibly know – how much Mitch and Murray paid for the premium leads – and his arrogance makes us believe him. Thompson plays Levene as a suave elder statesman, cashing in the last markers he has. It must have been a tremendous temptation to simply imitate Jack Lemmon, but Thompson’s Levene is less desperate. He’s more of a con artist, delivering his hollow rhetoric about “marshaling a sales force” and “streaks of luck” with a practiced ease. Even when he’s offering up a percentage of his commission, he passes it off as a last bid, rather than a plea.
The audience is ushered out for the set change in the second act, which struck me as a bit inconsiderate of the neighboring show. The crew does a good job creating a trashed real estate office: file cabinets broken open, papers and folders strewn across the floor. But the office doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as it should. When Levene starts laying into Williamson, or Moss into Roma, we should feel that these men are trapped – that they don’t have the option to simply walk away and not listen to the bile. But everyone has plenty of room to move.
(While I’m on the act changes, the choice of music between acts was also odd: Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” It’s not contemporary to the mid-80s setting. The tone is entirely wrong: Glengarry Glen Ross is gritty, not psychedelic. And it might be the second most over-used music cue of the last thirty years, coming just behind James Brown’s “I Feel Good”. If your music cue’s odd enough to notice, reconsider)
It’s in the second act that Browne (as Williamson) really comes into his own. His character goes through the harshest narrative arc in the show – on top of the world in Act 1, confused and harried in the first half of Act 2, laid low by spoiling Roma’s shot, then back on top by the end. Browne plays a flustered Williamson better than a cocky Williamson, but that’s to the character’s benefit: Williamson lording his power over Levene should be petty, not triumphant. Fisher (as Roma) also shines brighter in Act 2 than in Act 1. As Roma spinning a line of patter, he’s fine; as Roma reacting to Moss’s tantrum, he’s perfect. And kudos to Mussett for taking a role with almost no lines and giving it character. He says more with a hand across his mouth and a look to the floor than most can with the best lines in the world.
“It’s a fucked-up world,” Roma observes in the second act. “There’s no adventure to it.” Glengarry Glen Ross is about risk, the variable that makes something an adventure. Men ask other men to take risks for them: for Lingk to trust Roma, for Williamson to help Levene, for Aaronow to do a job for Moss. By the end of the play, none of the risks have paid off. The adventure has failed. And when you define your manhood by your ability to seek out and master risk, what do you do next? What’s left, when that is gone?