It’s not hard to see why Glengarry Glen Ross serves so well as the male side of the pair of shows chosen by Elizabeth Knarr, Analyssa Lopez, and Louis McWilliams for their senior project in TAPS. Few playwrights write about manhood more accurately than David Mamet, and he never does so with any sort of reverence. Glengarry is a story of toxic masculinity, of capitalism gone awry, of the discord caused by agon, of the inadequacies implicit in the structure of language. All this happens on the page, but it takes the skilled direction of Knarr and wonderful performances by the cast to convince the audience that the characters are more than just profane crabs eating each other in a barrel. They shrink and swell in the negative spaces of the text, carrying the audience along in a production that trades the bombast and hyperbole of the film adaptation for a more intimate examination of the men within the characters.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Mamet. Glengarry is without a doubt his most famous work, and it’s easy to see why. His skill for profanity-laced emotional tirades filled with quips and quotables is at its strongest here, and the setting lends itself to his language of jargon and cruelty and allusion and dishonesty. Trying to stage that is a challenge, especially in the tight confines of the Nitery Theater, where an actor who tries to play to the back row would come off as a caricature. Knarr has toned down the show’s more melodramatic scenes in favor of a measured, realistic perspective. The first act, entirely monologues or two-person scenes, is a slow burn, parsing out information and emotion to the audience in small doses, focusing on developing the agonistic spirit that defines the show. The actors constantly steal the scene from each other, and each dialogue becomes a tennis match of power dynamics that resists easy interpretation even after each character’s fate has become known.
Glengarry is built on ironies imposed by attempts to find salvation in a capitalist system that rewards malice.
Collaboration in this play happens reluctantly and clumsily: Moss (played by Kevin Heller) blackmails the emasculated and deferential Aaronow (Milan Mosse), but to no effect. Shelley Levene (Austin Caldwell) tries to cajole Williamson (Matthew Libby), but the latter knows he has no leverage and coldly declines, leading to the off-stage burglary that catalyzes all the tension built through the first act. Roma (Louis McWilliams) spins a web of lies to ensnare Lingk (Zachary Dammann). The interactions we only hear about are characterized similarly. Every character knows that the keys to their own success lies somewhere within the thicket of their relations with their colleagues, but the mechanisms by which they can achieve that are always obscured, usually by macho displays of bravura and posturing, or else by massaging language to remove truth in favor of sophistry. When two characters meet, their sentences are measured by the salesmen’s will to power, not by their truth or morality. This production brings it out with actions large and small, physicality used as punctuation, and total fluency with the (quite wordy) dialogue. The viewer is drawn from scene to scene by the work of the actors, whose constant conflicts wax and wane according to events the audience doesn’t get to witness.
The play is so steeped in language play and masculine dialogue that it can be easy to miss a central theme: the power of silence. Each character attempts to assert themselves through their excessive and exhaustive rhetorical games that they don’t realize when they’ve become the agents of their own destruction. Their talk is cheap, and we know it’s cheap, but we get immersed in it through the will of the performers and the snappiness of the dialogue until the play rewards us with this moment of actual narrative unfolding. Levene’s life and his power wilt away, no redemption available. Forgiveness is hard to muster for any character. We watch them building castles out of empty signifiers and arrogant blustering, receiving only hints of their humanity that seems almost superfluous, only to see them destroyed, either by personal shortcomings or by the folly of the entire endeavor.
Kudos must be given to everyone in the ensemble cast that make this production sing and inspire such bloviated posturing on my part. McWilliams, who is one-third of the creative force behind this and Top Girls, excels as Roma, a role that he was born to play with his elasticity and smooth-talking panache. (During the dress rehearsal, in a fit of rage, he accidentally kicked the leg off of one of the tables. It was hilarious. If you’re lucky, it might happen again.) Caldwell’s role as Shelley Levene is one of the most complicated, wavering wildly from emotional highs to lows, always trying to assert his power though even he is not sure if he has any left to assert. Heller’s performance as Moss is earnest and magnetic, his Midwestern accent goading the viewer into trusting him despite one’s better judgment. Williamson, played by Matthew Libby, was just the opposite, smirking capitalistly, unrepentant in failure and cruel in victory. Aaronow, played by freshman Milan Mosse, is phlegmatic and quavering, seeking approval but wholly unsuited for the deceit he’s surrounded by. Dammann as the hysterical Lingk serves as a foil to the veneer of smarminess each of the others wears like a coat. And Belletti, who plays both the cop and Blake, delivers the play’s most memorable speech from the movie without coming off as a shitty Alec Baldwin impression, updating it and removing it of its overwrought passion that can come off as dated now.
Knarr’s production is wonderfully taut and filled with passion. It exceeds the limits of the words on the page and convinces you of the importance of its subject matter by seducing the viewer with sophistry and immediately showing him/her the dangers of that seduction. Words glide by, and for much of the time it’s not clear who’s listening. Victory is negotiated, decided by leverage. Right and wrong have no place in the real estate business. Knarr and her cast have managed to merge this cynicism with an almost intimate sense of humanity, as all good Mamet productions should strive to do.
Photo credits: Frank Chen
Glengarry Glen Ross. The Nitery. November 11-14. Tickets here.