Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, directed by Sam Yates at The Richmond Theatre, review by John O’Brien.
It may be ugly, it may be vulgar, it is certainly shocking, but this is a slice of American pie that is well worth tasting.
“You stupid fucking cunt” is the most abusive line in a play notorious for its depiction of alpha males competing with and humiliating each other in the cut throat world of Chicago Real Estate. The author David Mamet worked in real estate as a young man and he used his experiences there to create a modern classic, part satire, part black comedy about the American way of salesmanship.
Often ranked alongside Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) has none of Miller’s elegiac quality. Instead it is a hard edged, in your face, no holds barred, all in wrestling, cage fighter of a play that is utterly uncompromising and unflinching in its gimlet eyed look at the dark side of the American Dream. There is no better place to get a real insight into the sense of the sociological milieu from which the property mogul President Trump – with his contempt for “low energy losers” and bombastic boasting about “just grabbing women by the pussy” – emerged than the racist, misogynist and bullying world of Real Estate as dramatised in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The play begins in medias res in a Chinese Restaurant where Shelly “The Machine” Levene (Mark Benton) pins down with a torrent of words Williamson (Scott Sparrow), his office manager. At the end of every sentence before Williamson can get a word in, Levene gestures abruptly to indicate that he hasn’t finished and that Williamson should keep silent and listen for a little longer. Levene wants Williamson to give him some of the good “leads” so that he can “close” the deals and get his name up on the leaderboard and compete to win a Cadillac.
Scene two takes place in same restaurant with another pairing of salesmen Dave Moss and George Aaronow. Dave (Denis Conway) launches into a racist monologue about the impossibility of selling to “deadbeat Polaks” and Indians called “Patel”. “This name Patel, it keeps coming up but they never buy anything”, Moss tells Aaronow. In desperation Moss floats the idea of breaking into the office and stealing all the premium leads and selling them to a rival firm. In a brilliant display of the slippery nature of language, Aaronow (Wil Johnson) asks Moss if he is serious:-
Aaronow: “Are we talking about this?”
Moss: “We are speaking about it”.
In a moment of word play worthy of Alice in Wonderland, Moss ensnares Aaronow into the burglary by telling him that he’s an accessory just by virtue of listening to his talk. This is Mamet’s key insight: the way in which the gullible are easily taken advantage of by the more forceful and sophisticated players in life’s endless power games.
In the third scene in the Chinese restaurant (or in Ricky Roma’s racist slang “Chink”) we meet a third pair. A suited and booted, slick, oleaginous and charismatic Ricky Roma (Nigel Harman) talking in poetic hyperbole about the meaning of life and living for the moment. Ricky is the number one salesman, at the top of the leaderboard and in line to win the Cadillac. Sitting next to him is James Lingk (James Staddon), a timid individual who is clearly no match for Ricky’s shark like instincts. Sure enough Ricky “closes” him in double quick time.
These three scenes are merely the set up for the dramatic series of verbal explosions that make up Act 2 of “Glengarry Glen Ross”. If like me you are wondering what the title refers to; Glengarry Heights is a residential neighbourhood and Glen Ross Farm are plots of land for sale to developers. Act 2 takes place in the office where there has been a burglary. All the tensions and frustrations of these alpha males come to head in a series of shocking verbal exchanges, unmatched in their ferocity, vulgarity and cruelty. Culminating in those notorious four words “you stupid fucking cunt”. In a state of near mental breakdown at the end of it all, Aaronow offers a bathetic anti-climax with the despairing aside “I hate this job”.
It may be ugly, it may be vulgar and it is certainly shocking, but as I said, this is a slice of American pie that is well worth sampling.