David Mamet won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for
Glengarry Glen Ross
, and it is a pleasure to report that Theatre Exile's terrific revival reaffirms the play's power. Mamet was, back in the day, the cigar-smoking, poker-playing wizard of obscenity, so iconic that he was the punch line of a now-famous joke:
A panhandler asks a businessman for money, and the businessman says self-righteously, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be. William Shakespeare." To which the panhandler replies, "F- you. David Mamet."
This is a play about desperation and betrayal; it's very funny and very sad and reaches to the utmost despair inherent in Calvin Coolidge's slogan, "The business of America is business."
Glengarry Glen Ross is about a group of guys who work in a real estate office, always trying to sell suckers pie-in-the-sky property in Arizona or Florida. Glengarry Glen Ross is the current development they're trying to hustle.
There's a contest for a Cadillac. There's competition to get on "the board." Ricky Roma (Bill Zielinski), pinky-ringed slick-talker, is the office's alpha male. The "whitebread" Williamson (Dan Hodge) is the slimy, exploitative office manager. Shelly "The Machine" Levine (Harry Philibosian) is the old-school guy who has lost his touch and is panicked for money. Moss (H. Michael Walls) is the nastiest of the bunch, while Aaronow (Joe Canuso) is the most decent and - not coincidentally - the most clueless.
The plot revolves around the disappearance of documents containing "leads" - hot prospects - and the cop (Bill Rayhill) who comes to investigate. We're partly in on it, although when Moss, early on, suggests to Aaronow the idea of stealing the leads, he's "just speaking" as opposed to "actually talking" about it.
Director Matt Pfeiffer establishes just the right pace and rhythm, shrewdly navigating between naturalism and highly stylized Mamet-speak. The ensemble creates the effect of guys who work together every day, but who are, nevertheless, backstabbers.
Each actor creates a jewel of a portrait. Especially good at the fast ferocity of the language is Michael Walls, and especially heartbreaking is Harry Philibosian. Bill Zeilinski's gestures - kicking stuff out of his way, reassuring hand on shoulder - give us a whole personality, while Joe Canuso's studied downward glances, mouth slightly open, convey his innocence and befuddlement. As the despised Williamson, Dan Hodge's rigid restraint is dangerous (his "go to lunch" scene is superb).
Matt Saunders' sets and James Leitner's lighting use the big hall's space cleverly, moving from the intimacy of Act One's Chinese restaurant ("Listen to what I'm going to tell you - ") to Act Two's cavernous, wrecked office, where all the power resides above, on the second floor.
Mamet worked in a Chicago real estate office when he was just starting out: "The men I was working with could sell ice to the Eskimos." Now that was a job that paid off in the long run.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Written by David Mamet. Directed by Matt Pheiffer. Sets by Matt Saunders, lighting by James Leitner, sound by Mike Kiley, costumes by Alison Roberts. Presented by Theatre Exile.
Cast: Bill Zielinski (Roma), Joe Canuso (Aaronow), Dan Hodge (Williamson), Harry Philibosian (Levine), H. Michael Walls (Moss), Brian McCann (Lingk), Bill Rayhill (Baylen).
Playing at Christ Church Community Center, 20 N. American St. Through May 13. Tickets $15-$40. Information 215-922-4462 or www.theatreexile.org