The first, memorable, line from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross begins: “John…John…John.” It is not: “John…(applause)…John.” But this being Broadway, and the speaker being immediately identifiable as a television celebrity–here, Alan Alda–the conditioned response sets in. It was at this moment–mere seconds after the lights came up–that I had a saddening, even if obvious, revelation: Broadway has now become irrevocably inhospitable to serious drama.
A good production of Mamet’s play might certainly be entertaining, even crowd-pleasing and laugh-out-lout funny. But it is still, at its core, a deadly serious and unforgiving piece of work, a display of animal behavior so exploitative in its preying on weakness that it could be likened to a nature documentary–“When Real Estate Agents Attack”. But the current hooting, hollering, and applause-happy audiences filling the coffers at the newly named “Jacobs ” Theatre (formerly the Royale, but appropriately rechristened after a Shubert mogul) are seeing their own play, not the one Mamet wrote. His play is a clinical examination of how capitalism steals our souls and our language. What’s being performed in the Jacobs, more than anything else, is the titillation of hearing actors yell “fuck” in a crowded theatre.
So is this just a problem of reception? Or is Joe Mantello’s ultra-competent production also culpable? Mantello, the consummate “actor’s director,” has clearly devoted much to character work. His Glengarry I would sum up as a day in the life of a bunch of losers. Everyone has his moment, his vulnerability… and his applause-cuing exit line. Jeffrey Tambor’s Aaranow is a perfect example; a fleshy dolt who is almost cute in his passivity. The character’s silence is rendered as “goodness”–as opposed to a quiet, calculating mind of his own.
I think any understanding of this play has to begin with the premise that these characters are not just losers–but crooks. Mantello succeeds so much in making us invest emotionally in their personal stakes that we lose the bigger perspective (and irony) of how the more desperately they fight to survive, the harder they have to “screw” their victims (i.e. the customers). Case in point: Alda’s Levene. Feingold (in the Voice) was inspired in complimenting him as “Dickensian.” It is indeed a wonderfully rich and full portrait of a nebbishy second-rater; Alda may be tall, but he plays a great “little guy”. Problem is, you forget that when he celebrates his big sale, he’s gloating over bilking an old couple out of $80,000 for swampland. (The audience also just loves it when he sticks it to his boss, young Williamson. The Broadway ticket-buyer demographics certainly work in Alda’s favor.)
Liev Schreiber (as Roma) is the only actor on stage in a Mamet play–and I don’t just mean the put-on Chicago accent and sleazy mustache. Incredibly detailed physically (just his vain adjustment of cufflinks is an essay in character), he constantly wavers oh so subtly between charming and chilling. So while he does get all of Roma’s many laughs–and the audience’s constant affirmation–his manipulation of his “mark,” Lingk (a subdued Tom Wopat), is so perfectly professional that we never once suspect Roma of any secret affection for the man, yet he never “winks” his villainy either.
It’s unseemly of me to harp on my fellow playgoers, I know, for allowing themselves to assimilate the play as boulevard entertainment–especially at a hundred bucks a pop. (At that price, who wants a play that questions the ethics of the broker who sold you the seats? or the motives of the umpteen producer names above the title?) But here we have an American play as close to a modern classic as we have. Doesn’t it deserve a really gutsy, shocking staging that reminds us the American theatre can still be about something?
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