Is the #metoo era really the best time to mount a major revival of play about a group of testosterone-raddled male real estate agents being unbearably blokey?
Well kind of, maybe. US playwright David Mamet has devoted much of his recent career to being a grade-A douchebag (his most recent wheeze was threatening to fine theatres who held post-show discussions after his plays). But it’s easy to forget how good he used to be. ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, from 1983, remains his most famous play, and deservedly so: it’s a startlingly short, painfully sharp, excavation of the desperation that lies under the alpha male ego.
The first half is the set up, three rapid vignettes set in the same Chicago Chinese restaurant. In the opener, veteran salesman Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene (Stanley Townsend) is using every ounce of charm he has to try and persuade impassive office apparatchik John (Kris Marshall, impressively unlovable) to give him some hot leads. In the second, cantankerous old hand Dave (Robert Glenister) tries to recruit fellow old-timer George (Don Warrington) to help him break into the office. And in the third, hotshot Ricky Roma (big star Christian Slater, back in the West End after a decade off) launches into a long aspirational monologue to the meek chap sat next to him – which turns out to be a ruthlessly honed sales pitch.
Lasting just 35 minutes and chased by an interval and dramatic set change, the first half almost functions as a prequel to the carnage of the second. Set the next day, the men are reeling from the aftermath of an office break in. It is all self-interest rather than concern: Slater’s Roma is a masterclass in toxic masculinity, his face shifting from smarmy detachment to a searing death stare that practically flays John’s skin from his bones. Veteran Irish actor Townsend is excellent at conveying Shelley’s desperate emotional rollercoaster ride – we root for him, kind of, and he has a light, likeable touch next to the cranky balls of testosterone around him. But there are flashes of nastiness, and he leaves us with the sense that this man has hollowed himself out utterly in the ephemeral pursuit of sales.
It’s not so much a tragedy as a clinical dissection of little men who lie to make themselves feel bigger. Mamet neither feels sorry for them nor celebrates them – this is simply how they are. If Yates’s hard, terse production doesn’t exactly go out of its way to hit us over the head with modern parallels, it hardly needs to: America is run by a liar; a series of male celebrities are suddenly telling us they ‘need help’ after decades of alleged abuses that never seemed to trouble them before. The play does not date.
A warning to die hard fans of the film: Alec Baldwin’s famously sweary ‘always be closing’ speech was added for the 1992 movie and has never been part of the play, which is now semi-notorious for disappointing audiences expecting to hear it. Lo and behold, the chap sat next to us expressed his dismay as it its omission as we filed out – one more disappointed middle-aged man in this study in their pathology.