Sharks in Swampland

The sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross feed on their clients’ dreams and create them where none exist.
  • The sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross feed on their clients’ dreams and create them where none exist.

A real estate development in Florida’s called “Glengarry Highlands.” To anyone whose heart’s up Scotland way, or savored a wee dram of highland single malt, the name has a bonny appeal. But to anyone who’s been to Florida, it makes no sense. Florida’s flat. The name and the facts don’t jibe. To earn their livelihoods, the real estate salesmen in David Mamet’s blowtorch-comedy, Glengarry Glen Ross, must convince prospective buyers that they do.

The play’s set in Chicago, 1983, a time, one says, when “money is tight.” For the La Jolla Playhouse, on Todd Rosenthal’s micro-realistic scenic designs, peeling, almost colorless billboards overhead set the tone: an eight-year-old ad for Jaws (just the teeth); a little girl spilling salt, and the claim that Morton’s is “the taste of Chicago.” Duct-tape veins the once-red vinyl seats of a Chinese restaurant, where goldfish poke about in a seedy tank. And the real estate office is a collage of rusty metal desks and filing cabinets and moldy walls. Toni Leslie James’s costumes, and actors smoking cigarettes, pinpoint the early ’80s. But given what’s happened since, Glengarry’s even more relevant today.

It takes place in a time of transition. From 1965 to the late ’70s, Shelly “the Machine” Levene was Willy Loman incarnate. He “rode on a smile and a shoeshine” and closed impossible deals. Of late, shades of the fading Willy, Levene can’t get his name on the “board.” Can’t sell squat. Since premium leads go to the hotshots — like cock-of-the-walk Richard Roma — Levene’s stuck with losers who, even if the deal’s sealed, will “kick out.” Levene longs for the “old days.”

“In those days...there was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude... Today it’s all cut and dried.” Willy Loman said that, though Levene could have, given the new regime. Real estate has gone corporate. Administrators with no sense of the territory make the rules, the first being to protect themselves.

Make no mistake: Roma, Levene, and the others are sharks (in no time the girl in the billboard looks like prey for the great white nearby). They feed on their clients’ dreams and create them where none exist. And they never discuss the deal. In 3 Uses of the Knife, Mamet says car dealers and advertising in general (and today’s social media, for that matter) “court” and “make much of” consumers: “We don’t want to hear about the design of the engine, we want to hear how smart we are.”

Levene, Roma, and slick Dave Moss sound like the self-realization gurus of the early ’80s. They don’t pitch a product, they stroke. Talking Scottish Highlands, selling Florida swampland.

And do they talk! Some playwrights — Shakespeare, Williams, and Mamet, among them — resemble opera. You either sing their music or you don’t. Director Christopher Ashley’s cast has the staccato patter, fragmented sentences, and shards of ideas down. In a note, he compares Mamet’s dialogue to improvised jazz. It is, but the need for precision recalls “Rock Island,” Meredith Willson’s intro to the “territory” of The Music Man. Pause for a full beat, miss the train.

The tightly knit, multiracial ensemble excels at the play’s central thrust: a live-by-your-wits struggle for control.

Every speech, even the thirds of words, attempts to dominate. It’s as if their world’s a stage with just one microphone. All grab at once.

Thanks in part to an extraordinary scene-change (the Chinese restaurant levitates out of sight), the director joined Glengarry’s two acts into a 90-minute bullet train. At first, it’s who gets the premium leads; then it’s find out who ransacked the office and ripped them off.

Mamet also teases with sideline questions: how much are the leads worth? Who’s making how much off them? They say Jerry Graff, who will buy them, is “clean.” But is he? Are any of them?

The prime suspect’s George Aaronow. Compared to the slick talkers around him, he looks gullible. He’d be the least likely if we hadn’t seen Dave Moss hand him the idea (“Someone, someone should hurt them” — the bosses downtown). Ray Anthony Thomas makes Aaronow a tricky read: is he guilty or just real nervous?

Richard Roma’s dialogue sounds as if written for a young Robert De Niro. Roma’s the Michael Jordan of the sales reps (so why isn’t he working with the big shots downtown?). An outstanding Manu Narayan makes Roma above suspicion, even above the law when he lambastes the office manager, John Williamson (Johnny Wu, holding his own for the firm), and manipulates James Lingk (Jeff Marlow, a fragile pawn). In one of the play’s few tender moments, Roma bonds with Peter Maloney’s equally outstanding Shelly Levene.

Maloney spellbinds when Levene re-creates a recent sale and what the comeback means for his career. As Dave Moss, James Sutorius also spellbinds, even more than we realize. Mamet may be making a point here: how much of speech in theater, or in life, is a coded sales pitch? In the end, things don’t turn out as expected. Ross didn’t just sell the idea to Aaronow. He sold us as well. ■

Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Directed by Christopher Ashley; cast: Peter Maloney, James Sutorius, Jeff Marlow, Manu Narayan, Ray Anthony Thomas, Johnny Wu, Matt MacNelly; scenic design, Todd Rosenthal; lighting, David Lander; costumes, Toni Leslie James; sound, David Corsello

Playing through October 21; Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

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pitch perfect on this one -- this idea of selling, selling out, selling our souls for the almighty dollar -- or even just to be 'on top' -- regardless of the karmic consequences -- seem more prevalent than ever -- social media just makes it friendlier and easier..... thanks for the wonderful insights

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