Clocking in at just under 90 minutes without an intermission, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is a fast gut-punch of a play. Done right, it will leave you breathless. And for the most part, the Alley Theatre's production of this postmodern tale about the nasty business of salesmen hits its target dead on. Directed by James Black with lean muscle and hair-raising rhythm, the show burns; it's a thrilling celebration of greed, profanity and the sorry darkness in all our souls.
Focusing on five middle-aged schmucks who slave away in a soul-crushing real estate office, the simple story is as disturbing as they come. The office is a hellhole where every grunt must sell enough real estate to get his name on the board. If you don't sell, you don't have a job. "Always Be Closing" is the office prayer. And they all worship at the altar of the Cadillac that each hopes to win as top seller.
We meet the major players in three swiftly moving scenes in a Chinese restaurant across the street from the office. First up is the sniveling Shelly Levene (John Tyson), who's on a bad "streak." He's trying to persuade his ice-hearted manager, John Williamson (Jeffrey Bean), to give up the good leads. But only top sellers get good leads, and lately Levene can't sell squat. So Williamson won't budge. Bean makes a wonderfully soulless company man, chewing a toothpick as he listens with glassy contempt to Levene. And Tyson's Levene is as hungry as they come. Looking positively ill with desperation, he curses Williamson even as he grovels. At one point, he even tries bribing the manager, who clearly will do anything for a kickback. Trouble is, Levene has less than zero to offer.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421
Through June 5. $40-$45.
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Scene two happens in a booth across the restaurant. There George Aaronow (Todd Waite) and Dave Moss (James Belcher) sit bitching about their jobs, their boss, their lousy luck. Waite and Belcher make a terrific pair of losers. Sporting a bad haircut and a wearily hunched back, Waite's Aaronow is a spineless mess of a man. A softie at heart, he's clearly not cut out for sales, but he trudges on, whining every step of the way. Belcher's Moss is a ticking bomb of pent-up rage. Spitting as he speaks, he comes up with a scheme to rob the office. He wants to steal the good leads and sell them to a competitor, and he wants Aaronow to do the dirty work. The setup's simple. And it inevitably will lead someone down the road to destruction.
Finally we meet the infamous Richard Roma (Sean Patrick Reilly), top man on the board. He's in the middle of his own special sales pitch, targeting one James Lingk (K. Todd Freeman), a twitchy little man who's mesmerized by Roma's strange methodology. In this scene, Mamet imbues Roma with an erotic, almost mystical power. Roma's freaky pitch advocates a testosterone-fueled antiphilosophy of fearless anarchy in the face of a rule-bound world. He seduces Lingk with his strangely intimate talk: "You fuck little girls, so be it. There's an absolute morality? May be. And then what?" It's a disturbing scene that gets at the black heart of this play. And in this production it almost works, simply because Reilly is so convincingly fearless as the godlike Roma. But much of Reilly's seduction is undercut by the fact that Roma and Lingk sit in booths on opposite sides of the stage. The intimacy implied in this scene, in which Roma the salesman becomes a sort of antipriest to his potential customer, is lost in the physical space between the two men.
But this minor setback is quickly forgotten when we move through the scene change (a miracle of choreography that involves rolling set pieces, impressively fast stagehands and a fabulous soundtrack). Lights come up on the office. Everything's trashed. Someone has broken in during the night, and now it's time to figure out whodunit. The entire production gathers speed as the men begin to unravel under the pressure. They can't even sell anymore -- the phones have all been taken. They attack one another. They implode. And, of course, one man ends up completely demolished in this wasteland of greed and want.
The final image will take your breath away. It will haunt you as you make your way to the car. Glengarry Glen Ross will make you squirm even as you thrill at its nastiness.