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Critic: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February

23, 2000. All rights

reserved.

McCarter Review: `Glengarry Glen Ross’

On my way up the aisle of the McCarter Theater, I heard

the following exchange:

He: How many times did you hear fuck you?

She: 150 times.

He: Oh, so you were counting?

At a time, a mere 15 years ago, when "fuck you" had

already slipped into the vernacular to become the modern-day street

talk equivalent of hail and farewell and everything in between, David

Mamet won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for his play "Glengarry Glen

Ross." Those words, among an array of equally vulgar expletives,

are not only an integral part of play’s rich terse prose; they

dominate

and distinguish the speech of a quartet of mercenary salesmen.

Even if there is anyone on the planet still able to be shocked by

the avalanche of profanities at the outset will surely succumb to

their earthy, fugue-like lyricism. The audience on opening night not

only succumbed to the dialogue, the performers, and the play itself,

but greeted individual arias (what else can you call them?) and

confrontations

with show-stopping applause. Not influenced in the least by the

enthusiasm

of the audience, I can objectively say this was one of the most

exciting

and edifying productions I’ve seen at McCarter in the 20 years I have

been going there.

With incendiary originality, "Glengarry Glen Ross" dramatizes

the personal agendas and general business scruples (or lack of them)

of a group of ruthless wheeler-dealers in the real-estate market,

each with his own plan on how to bilk unsuspecting retirees and the

elderly out of their life-long savings and disposable income. If the

language no longer shocks, it still has the power to aggressively,

purposefully, and humorously propel the various tempers fueled and

cooled throughout the 90 minutes it take for the play to run its

course.

In dramatizing the desperation, uncertainties and volatile conditions

of one salesman’s disintegrating life, Mamet inverts the theme of

Arthur Miller’s classic drama about the loss of the American dream,

and reverts to one of the oldest of all dramatic themes, survival

of the fittest. As directed by Scott Zigler with a tight hold on the

short fuses that ignite the cut-throat behavior and abrasive word

play, "Glengarry" plays out its schemes and a plot centering

on a robbery snugly even in the large expanse of the McCarter stage.

For the play’s two brisk acts, the brilliant designer John Lee Beatty

has evoked the ambiance of an all plum-colored Chinese restaurant,

where you know the food has to be rotten, and a seedy, ransacked and

ravaged real estate office, where you know the deals are all crooked.

Because of its language-propelled plot, "Glengarry" is more

compelling and compact than was the 1992 screen version starring Al

Pacino, Alex Baldwin, and Jack Lemmon. Zigler’s decisive staging shows

us how much more vital and vivid theater can be than anything on a

screen. A former artistic director of the Mamet-founded Atlantic

Theater

Company, Zigler, who directed Mamet’s "The Old Neighborhood"

on Broadway last season, has made sure every obscenity is dotted and

observation crossed.

Elevating, in a sense, his small-time street thugs in "American

Buffalo" from their petty heists and incompetent scheming, to

the high-pressure world of real estate sales, we see feigned literacy,

genuine street smarts, and semi-legalized corruption exalted with

savage wit and perception. There are no good guys and bad guys in

this all-male play — only desperate, hungry men reduced by their

dog-eat-dog profession, and their own insidious brand of ethics, to

luring the unsuspecting, the unwary, and the unwise into making

dubious

investments.

The title refers to an undeveloped tract of undeveloped Florida

swampland,

unsuitable for human habitation. If you have ever been subjected to

a pitch by a fast-talking broker to either buy or invest in some

worthless

parcel in the Poconos, you will find this dramatic re-encounter a

scathingly funny blow to your gullibility. If this world is foreign

to you, Mamet makes sure, with his realistic but colorful assortment

of characters, to keep you alternately gasping or laughing. Much of

the success of this production may be attributed to the often

stunning,

pulse racing acting by a top-notch cast, all of whom seem quite at

home with the tone and tempi, under Zigler’s virtuoso command.

Mamet’s cleverly melodramatic plot involves a scheme,

a robbery, an investigation, and a surprise ending. Charles Durning,

who was so endearingly cantankerous in the recent Broadway revival

of "The Gin Game," gives a riveting chill to Shelley Levene;

the panicking old-timer whose "closings" are getting wider

apart and his chances for "getting on the board" growing

dimmer.

The place each salesman gets on "the board" depends on his

sales record and determines whether he ends up with a Cadillac, a

set of steak knives, or without a job. Akin to showing us the

underbelly

of Miller’s Willie Loman, Durning (who has the belly to show it),

gives Levene’s disintegration a stunning tragi-comical edge.

With an impressive career marked by a Tony for his role as Big Daddy

in "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," and memorable performances in

"Inherit the Wind," and "That Championship Season,"

Durning ironically has the opportunity in his role of a once mighty

now sinking salesman to boast to his fellow workers of his past

achievements.

Unlike Levene, Durning can go on boasting. Durning’s astonishing

performance

builds decisively during the play and hits his peak as he relates

with hypnotic intensity to another, but much younger, salesman Roma

(Ruben Santiago-Hudson) how he used his unique sales pitch and

technique

to get an old couple to sign away their savings.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won the Tony in 1966 for his performance

as a glib, philosophical musician in August Wilson’s "Seven

Guitars,"

is excellent as Roma, another sort of philosopher, one whose smarmy

smooth-talking gobbledygook wears down his prey. Daniel Benzali plays

Moss, the loud-mouth schemer who cooks up a plot to rob the office

of its buyer leads. Praised for his performances in the London

productions

of "Evita" (as Peron), and "Sunset Boulevard" (as

Max), but probably more recognizable to McCarter audiences for his

starring role in the late TV series "Murder One," Benzali

also stops the show with the kind of double talk that precludes a

double cross.

Less bravura in his manner, Sam Coppola plays the washout Aaronow,

the most easily intimidated of the sleazy sales force. Coppola gives

us a lesson in how to convey more by saying less, especially in a

ferociously funny, almost one-sided duologue with Moss at the bar

in the restaurant. One of the most focused and provocative

performances

comes from Jordan Lage, who, so cagily icy as the arrogant

self-assured

and hated office manager, brings in Baylen (Lionel Mark Smith), a

no-nonsense detective, to solve the crime. Steven Goldstein makes

the most of his role as a witless taxi driver duped by Moss into

signing

a sales contract.

Much of the enjoyment of the play is in watching these men lash out

at each other. But, like a pack of starving wolves, they make sharp

distinctions between the clan and their prey. Because the streamlined

body of the play is so ripe with ironies and relentless in its

metaphors,

the conclusion seems to come without warning. But, I suppose wanting

more is always a good sign. F — – y — , if you miss this one.

— Simon Saltzman

Glengarry Glen Ross, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Performances continue to March 5. $20 to $47.


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