I live in a world far removed from the ruthless and Chinese food–fueled business world of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, now playing at PURE Theatre on King Street. Being removed from it, however, seemed like the best reason to experience it. This play is not a walk in the park. There is no romance, and any comedy comes only from ferocious truth-telling. It is cutthroat. It is brutal. And people actually live like this.
The 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner is a close-up and vivid snapshot of a group of businessmen who have worked together for years—scheming and manipulating their clients into buying massive shares of real estate. The whole play is anger fighting desperation, with a sprinkling of greed. The plot is built on the actions of desperate men, driven by money and the desire to come out on top. You get a clear impression of each man’s position within the office hierarchy and how his particular situation informs every move he makes. They fight each other, they help each other out, and they curse a lot. I mean, A LOT. Curse word quota = filled.
The office veteran, Shelly Levene (Randy Neale), is past his prime and has not been able to close a deal in months. It has been so long since he’s closed a deal, in fact, that he can’t even get his foot in the door with the new leads who actually have the money to invest in massive real-estate ventures. The office manager, Williamson (R.W. Smith), turns up the heat when he proposes a competition: the man with the most sales wins a new Cadillac (it’s the 80’s, OK?). Add that challenge to the everyday pressure of the job, and you’ve got a ticking time bomb. It would be enough to piss anybody off. It especially pisses of the office's resident bad boy, Moss (Rodney Lee Rogers), who proposes an elaborate scheme to stage a robbery, steal the top leads, and sell them to a competitor. Desperate times call for desperate measures...except that he doesn’t want to do the job himself. His conversation and negotiation with skeptical co-conspirator George Aaronow (Mark Landis) is a dubious and lighthearted highlight of the show.
Randy Neale’s portrayal of Shelly Levene is frantic and grasping—truly squirm worthy—although I found myself actually rooting for him. There is nothing more uncomfortable than watching a man fight for something he knows he’s lost. R.W. Smith is about as cuddly as a cactus as Williamson, with a dead-eye glare that I would hate to have to argue with. I especially enjoyed David Mandel’s portrayal of Roma, possibly the slipperiest snake in the pit, who seems to have the system all figured out until trying to close a deal with the spineless James Lingk (Laurens Wilson), which throws things into desperate chaos. Michael Smallwood rounds out the cast as police officer Baylen, who is called in to investigate the office robbery.
The ensemble work here is strong, owing in part to the fact that these guys have literally been working together for years as part of PURE’s core ensemble. The Chinese restaurant setting of the first act is effective and striking, giving way to a second act set that can only be described as M.C. Escher with filing cabinets. Also noteworthy is the use of heavy rock 'n' roll during scene transitions—a very strong mood setter. Kudos to lady director Erin Wilson for having the guts to take on a show that was written about men, for men, and by a man. In this case, David Mamet, who is notorious for being the "man’s man" of American theatre. Go girl!
So, though you won’t find any heartwarming, fine family fun in Glengarry Glen Ross, you might just leave the theatre feeling extra thankful that you live in a place as gracious as Charleston.