Punching Through David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross

Life on the edge in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.
Life on the edge in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.
Photo by Gary Griffin

The set-up:
Is that red leather banquette in the Chinese restaurant real leather?
Or is it Naugahyde? If any of the high-powered salesmen in David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winner Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) had their say, they'd convince you – arm-twist, sweet-talk, or brow-beat – that what you're sitting on is the softest, most luxurious sofa imaginable, fit for a king. They wouldn't stop their spiel until you bought it. Once you got the ratty furniture home, though, the springs would punch you in the ass, the dye would stain your sleeve, the leather would crack like Margo's skin in Lost Horizon.

Don't blame the guys, they're just trying to make a living. That's what they do. That's all they know. And if they sell more real estate this month than their colleagues – or sofas, used cars, insurance policies, the American Dream, whatever – they'll get their reward, a big fat Cadillac. Sharks could take lessons from these men living on the edge. They're only as good as their last sale. And their quota is tallied on the big board at the low-rent office with its harsh florescent lighting and puke green walls for all to see. And that need to make a sale drives them, makes them desperate, and crazy, and dangerous.

The execution:
Mamet is the Shakespeare of the scatological, the poet of the profane. He brought the f-bomb into theater with the sting of a slap. The blitzkrieg sounds of the street, like Chaucer on steroids, strike with lightning glee. Mamet can turn procreation into a noun, adjective, or adverb. Brutal and objectified, making love is meant to hurt.

At his best, his brittle dialogue sparks and sets fire to our imagination. His desperate characters dare say things we can only dream of saying. He likes to punch us hard to punch us awake. His gritty signature style, elliptical and jarring, full of macho bluster and non-pc correctness, is a take-no-prisoners approach that has served him well throughout his career (American Buffalo, Oleanna, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Verdict, Wag the Dog), and his influence has been universal.

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To close its inaugural season, Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. presents this primal Mamet with a special type of punch. The office could be in a nondescript strip mall, the guys your neighbors. We're not talking Exxon or Google or Amazon, no, this is low-rent territory. The guys only want to sell you land, a piece of the American Dream. Shelly (Ken Watkins) is on the way out. Once hot, he's lost his mojo and sits crumpled at that banquette as tired-looking as his ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit. His face sags, his life sags. All four salesmen are desperate, but Shelly can't hide it. Younger Dave (Bill Giffen) wants out, but only to move up. He's stymied by Rick “Mr. Slick” (Jeff Featherston), the cock of the walk, and Dave wants revenge. A midnight burglary would do the trick, take them all down a peg. In one of Mamet's most inky comedy scenes, Dave dangles his plot by wimpy George (Allen Dorris), insinuating, cajoling, confusing the obtuse, yet decent, man.

Office manager John (Jonathan Gonzalez) isn't one of them, never has been. A toady for the owners, he doles out the potential contracts to the salesmen, but doesn't sell anything himself. But if they don't sell, he'll lose his job, too. It's co-dependency without loyalty or any love lost. All of them are at each other's throats, knives drawn and sharpened. Don't turn around.

The effects of the burglary highlight Act II, but the selling goes on. Schlubby James (Kurt Bilanoski), a patsy of Rick's we've fleetingly met at the restaurant in the first act, returns to get his money back. Rick goes into overdrive, holding him off with oily persuasion and inveigling familiarity, while police detective Baylen (Casey Coale) investigates. Everybody's got something to sell.

Act II doesn't step as lively as it should, losing needed momentum. Mamet should speed, but here the rhythm's slightly off, the ellipses too drawn out. Mamet is nothing if not crisp and jagged like broken glass. Words tumble from his characters in defense, as a shield, as a bludgeon. He's got to move.

But the cast holds it together. As washed-up Shelly, Watkins clings to his former glory but is only treading water. It's a desperately accurate portrait of the drowning man. You can see why the others call him Slick, for Featherston gleams as amoral Rick, as smooth as his sharkskin suit with black and white striped socks. He glows like polished marble and is just as cold and hard. As trickster Dave, Giffen showers him with an interior contempt that seems to eat him from within. Gruff and full of scorn for any non-white, he barely contains his rancor under his glib shell of soft-soap. And Dorris invests non-threatening George with soft comic timing and subtle physicality. George isn't flashy, but his decency, looked upon as a weakness by the men, may just save him.

The set, designed by director Malinda L. Beckham and James V. Thomas, is a beaut – the Chinese restaurant is perfectly tacky and the office deliciously B-grade – both washed in John Baker's detailed lighting and depicted in Beckham's sleazy and apt clothes.

The verdict:
A grinning skull's head, Mamet's absinthe-inspired world view bores into you. This is one part of the world we don't wish to see, but can't turn away from. Beauty of man is not his forte, but the knives he flashes emit red-hot sparks.

Glengarry Glen Ross continues through March 18 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. March 12; 7:30 p.m. March 16. Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. at MATCH, 3400 Main Street. For information, call 713-561-5113 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org. $20.

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