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Glengarry Glen Ross

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

In a month stuffed with Christmas Carols and Christmas Schooners, Posada Magicas and Runaway Latkes, thank heaven for Glengarry Glen Ross. As an antidote to the theatrical eggnog that predominates at this time of year, Steppenwolf is presenting a crisply acted, cunningly designed revival of David Mamet's tough, crackling comedy drama. There's plenty of false fellowship but not an ounce of charity--or piety--in this Pulitzer-winning critique of cutthroat capitalism. Scrooge himself might have delighted in Mamet's scheming businessmen living in the material world by schmoozing and swindling one another. I can see the old miser rubbing his hands in pleasure and sighing with satisfaction: "Ah, humbug!"

Of course, Glengarry Glen Ross doesn't endorse its characters' con games and corruption. This is a penetrating portrait of human energy wasted in pursuit of false values. Its characters are salesmen in a dumpy Chicago real estate office, chasing an empty American dream symbolized by a Cadillac--first prize in their firm's sales contest--and pitching elusive investors questionable properties gussied up with names like Glen Ross Farms and Glengarry Highlands, Mountain View and Rio Rancho. The four salesmen--old-timers Shelly Levene, Dave Moss, and George Aaronow and hot young comer Ricky Roma--aren't evil (or terribly competent); they're just cogs in the dream machine, striving to please their absentee bosses, the much feared Mitch and Murray.

"A man's his job," declares Levene, a once great hustler nicknamed "the Machine" who boasts that he earned $96,000 in 1979, before he hit a long losing streak. In his desperation to get back "on the board" by closing a few hot deals, he's willing to beg or bribe John Williamson, the firm's WASP office manager, for a few "premium leads." Meanwhile Moss and Aaronow are apparently plotting to steal Williamson's closely guarded file of leads and sell it to Mitch and Murray's archrival, Jerry Graff. And Roma--an Italian Catholic younger than his Jewish colleagues and thus a bit of an outsider--uses his sleek charm to hook an anxious sucker, James Lingk, despite the misgivings of Lingk's wife. (Neither Mrs. Lingk, Jerry, nor Mitch and Murray ever appear; in this play the real power brokers remain offstage, pulling the strings of Mamet's pathetic puppets.)

From these three plot lines Mamet weaves an intricate mystery. The first act is composed of three blackout sketches, acerbically funny encounters between pairs of men scheming in the dark confines of a dingy Chinese restaurant; the second is a single extended scene in the firm's office, assembling in classic whodunit fashion all the characters and narrative clues. The story's multiple twists emerge from the characters' conflicts--and from the fascinating, raunchy gutter poetry that expresses them. Jagged and elliptical, sometimes rambling, sometimes terse, but always precise and economical, Mamet's open-ended dialogue replicates the salesman's technique, leaving sentences incomplete so that the customer can fill in the blanks. Rhythmically charged, the text represents the characters' attempts to comprehend and convey their existential place, if not in the universe then in the company of the men against whom they measure themselves, with whom they bond, and whom they set out to destroy. As in so many Mamet plays, human relationships here are a jumble of camaraderie and competition, benevolence and betrayal, deception and self-destruction.

Premiered in 1983 at the National Theatre of Great Britain (Harold Pinter, to whom the script is dedicated, used his influence), Glengarry Glen Ross made its U.S. debut in 1984 at the old Goodman Theatre studio, then went on to an award-winning Broadway run; a touring version of the New York production played here at the Blackstone (now Merle Reskin) Theatre in 1986. Over the years it's popped up with some regularity at storefront theaters, but this is its first high-profile, all-Equity mounting here in 15 years. Most viewers who know the material probably saw the 1992 all-star movie version, which is sorely lacking in the play's claustrophobic intensity, Chicago texture, and ethnic specificity. (A running joke about a customer named Patel suggests a sociological subtext, the arrival of Indians to once predominantly Jewish West Rogers Park.) First-timers ought to find this revival a revelation, and those familiar with the play should be delighted with how splendid a job Steppenwolf has done in its first main-stage Mamet production.

Director Amy Morton, as good with other actors as she is in her own work onstage, got off to a fine start by casting Mike Nussbaum as Levene. This is a role Nussbaum (who played Aaronow in the 1984 Goodman production) has been building up to throughout his career, and it fits him like a glove. Nussbaum's Levene is a gray man in a gray suit, a onetime hotshot whose displays of flamboyance--an improbably loud tie, an oversize cigar--now merely highlight his fall from grace. His punchy, pugnacious gestures are those of a hard-sell huckster from a bygone era; his slight Yiddish inflections imply a working-class upbringing (when he boasts that he put a daughter through school, you know she was the first of his family to go to college). When he sits in the Chinese restaurant pleading with his nemesis Williamson, Levene's nervous energy makes his feet pump the floor like a car pedal while his broad salesman's smile barely masks a carnivorous ferocity. Nussbaum's no star ("Is that the dad from Frasier?" a teenager asked his mom in the lobby, confusing Nussbaum with John Mahoney). But he's a first-rate actor--and, more important, the quintessential Mamet actor: he and the playwright have been colleagues since the beginnings of off-Loop theater, when both worked under director Bob Sickinger at the old Hull House Theater in the mid-60s.

David Pasquesi (who a few years back played Mamet's alter ego in Northlight Theatre's staging of the autobiographical The Old Neighborhood under Nussbaum's direction) is the perfect Roma for Nussbaum's Levene. The play hinges on their surrogate father-son relationship, a mixture of admiration and enmity. Pasquesi's Roma is silky smooth, with long hands that move with delicate seductiveness, marking him as a new breed of soft-sell salesman. He lacks the streetwise, dangerous edge that Joe Mantegna brought to his Tony-winning interpretation of the role, but Pasquesi's bland likability makes the treacheries of the ending more striking than I've ever seen them before.

Portly Matt DeCaro brings to the role of Moss a hilarious apoplectic anger worthy of Jackie Gleason or Nathan Lane; his blowhard attempt to enlist the schlemiel Aaronow (Alan Wilder) in the burglary plot is hilarious. Peter Burns as Lingk is a terrified cipher, responding with silent desire and fear to Roma's insinuating sales pitch. Gary Brichetto is the no-nonsense detective Baylen, and hulking Tracy Letts is excellent as the tight ass Williamson.

Morton's attention to detail and to what she rightly calls Mamet's "Spartan" economy extends beyond her actors to her wonderful design team. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's hard-bop sound track sets the right mood of edgy anxiety. Nan Cibula-Jenkins's costumes capture the men's personalities perfectly, from their neckties down to their shoes. (Roma's accessories--gold ID bracelet and silver cigarette case--are especially delicious touches.) Derek McLane's nicely detailed Chinese restaurant, with its beaten-up red vinyl banquettes, rolls away in act two to reveal his masterful replication of a storefront office undergoing renovation. Half the wall is covered with faux wood paneling; the other is flimsy drywall awaiting a contractor's magic touch. It's the perfect metaphor for the play's theme of tawdry illusion while also signaling Williamson's mission to consolidate his power by rehabbing the space and sweeping out the Jewish deadwood--specifically Levene. Pat Collins's lighting establishes the restaurant's ersatz atmospheric dimness and the office's garish brightness, fluorescent lights shining through cheap, cracked plastic covers repaired with duct tape. The floor in both sets is covered with black and red tiles--the chessboard on which the sad, striving men of Glengarry Glen Ross try, with unforgettable desperation, to strategize and survive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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