The last few years seem like an almost obvious backdrop for new productions of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross. An acerbic take on cutthroat real-estate salesmen, it is, at its core, a meditation on manhood and occupation, its characters defining their lives on a series of hot streaks and cold streaks, navigating a spectrum of vacillating obsolescence and prowess. It underscored a decade that became known for its materialism and slick big business ruthlessness, all pin-stripes, obnoxious contrast-collar shirts, and “Greed is Good” mantras. Thirty years on, it perhaps strikes a different chord, now that the ’80s Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross alike tried to problematize nevertheless yielded the unchecked greed that gave us the financial meltdown of ’08 and politicians trying to sell the notion that corporations are people. Maybe reprised productions of Glengarry Glen Ross are intended to resonate with people’s disgust with post-recession corporate America. Conversely, maybe you’re supposed to sympathize anew with the battered foot-soldiers, real estate men who, like the ad execs of Mad Men, need to sell themselves their own line of bullshit, ascribing enough gravity to their jobs so that they can keep on living.
Light stuff. But, then, this is what’s great about Mamet in his greatest plays—to have his warped, cynical characters unspool these logical games for the benefit of the audience, comprised equally of swearing and philosophizing, of jokes and profundity. And Glengarry Glen Ross certainly counts amongst his greatest work.
The latest production of Glengarry Glen Ross is taking place at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in midtown Manhattan, and runs from now until January 20th. It stars Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, John C. McGinley, David Harbour, Richard Schiff, and Jeremy Shamos, and is directed by Daniel Sullivan. Many of the reviews of this particular production have been less than kind. Some critics assert that the great names collected for the cast are just that: names who proceed to eat up the frenetic monologues and profane rants Mamet’s provided them, but largely seem to be doing so in a vacuum, missing all the character interaction—like, people talk over each other constantly in this play—that give those monologues and biting takedowns all their punch. Such arguments seem unfair, and though there are certainly cracks and imperfections remaining, it seems the production has matured a bit in the few weeks it has been running.
In particular, some have taken issue with Al Pacino’s performance. The screen legend takes on a different role than he did in the movie adaptation twenty years ago, reflecting his age by portraying the beaten-down Shelly Levene and ceding the young hotshot character of Ricky Roma to Bobby Cannavale. The main complaint is that Pacino just does Pacino, hamming it up, milking the audience, maintaining a bit too much of Roma’s bombast for a declining salesman like Levene. Fair enough, there is a bit of that, but Pacino’s moments of excess seem rather fitting, actually. They come primarily in the second act, when Levene has made a big sale, presumably broken his cold streak, and returned to the office victorious. It’s Levene that hams it up in recounting his war story, and Pacino shifts between being depleted and falsely reinvigorated appropriately.
But the highlight here is undoubtedly Bobby Cannavale, coming right off a stint as the main antagonist in the third season of Boardwalk Empire, and taking on the considerable challenge of inhabiting Pacino’s former character as Pacino stares back at him. Like Cannavale’s character in Boardwalk Empire, the character of Ricky Roma is sort of a stereotype. But while Boardwalk at times restricted Cannavale to being a brutish mafioso without much perceivable backstory or motivation, Mamet’s character—though similarly devoid of backstory, but not of motivation, whether material or abstract—has nuance. Cannavale does it beautifully, killing his intro, the third and final scene of the first act. It’s comprised predominantly of Roma’s seductive and dark monologue, as he woos his mark in the chinese restaurant. Later, in the second act, Cannavale gets to unleash the id he wielded throughout this last fall on Boardwalk, as Roma lets loose on the weaker men in his vicinity, his jugular veins bulging in rage.
Coming off the recession and continued disenchantment in its wake, you might wonder whether Glengarry Glen Ross has much new to say compared to contemporary takes on white collar existentialism like Mad Men. Certain things date it—the numbers they throw out—or make it seem sort of strange—the setting being a real estate office, when we’re now more used to seeing this tale told through bankers or high power executives. The lack of digital culture also means that the brand of cutthroat Mamet depicts is totally different than what now exists. There’s a whole different tempo to things now. In a way, not having to deal with that stuff—clutter, in a way—is what keeps the play so sparse and hard-hitting nearly three decades on. Its setting may exist in a past moment, but its themes keep getting acted out again and again in our new realities and in our new fictions. Seeing Glengarry Glen Ross now, the temporal and practical detachments from 2012 allow for a sort of frenzied and enraged cleanliness that harkens to our past while resonating with our present. With people like Cannavale at the fore, the raw nerves of the play are there as much as ever, its animalism and humanity jostling for control.
Photo Credit: Scott Landis