Art of Closing Scummy Deals-Mamet’s All-American Hustlers

A few afterthoughts on the perfect revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Joe Mantello, at the newly named Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on 45th Street:

If there were a Tony Award for best ensemble acting, Glengarry’s all-male troupe would surely win it hands down.

Mr. Mamet’s toxic 1984 play is famously about a group of rats-or shabby Chicago real-estate brokers-who fleece the gullible with phony land sales in Edenesque Florida. The juiciest roles go to Alan Alda as Shelly Levine, the fading, elderly salesman who needs a break so badly he has us cringing, and Liev Schreiber as Levine’s smart apprentice in the venal art of the deal. Both of them are simply terrific.

Mr. Schreiber’s swaggering, ruthless Richard Roma with the spit-polished shoes is coiled, weaselly and very dangerous, like a ticking bomb. This fine, physically intimidating actor looks as if he might knock you through the wall for sport. His Chicago accent and ear for Mr. Mamet’s linguistic heat couldn’t be better (or more enjoyable). Mr. Schreiber is something rare onstage: a good listener. When he’s listening intently to the tales of Mr. Alda’s Shelly, his eyes convey nothing less than love for the old guy who taught him everything-the master who taught him, in effect, how to be a ruthless scam artist.

Mr. Alda, enjoying a happy career renaissance of late, conveys the terrible, plaintive desperation of a man pleading for his life. “What was that? Luck?” Shelly argues with the punk who runs the office. “That was ‘luck’? Bull shit, John. You’re burning my ass, I can’t get a fucking lead … you think that was luck. My stats for those years? Bull shit … over that period of time …. Bull shit. It wasn’t luck. It was skill. You want to throw that away, John? … You want to throw that away?”

Glengarry is a modern Death of a Salesman. It’s a morality play about the ruthlessness of our sentimentalized American Dream, or the low art of survival and profit in the American Way of Life. Though it doesn’t move us like the Miller, Glengarry invented a new definition of the all-American male: You are who you con.

The scummy, killer capitalists in Glengarry are also the heirs to Mr. Mamet’s own lowlifes in American Buffalo. There, the loser Teach announces his Philosophy of Life: “You know what is free enterprise? The freedom of the individual to Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit …. Am I so out of line on this? Does this make me a Commie?”

Here, the winner Roma offers his own mindless philosophy: ” When you die you’re going to regret the things you don’t do. You think you’re queer? I’m going to tell you something: we’re all queer. You think that you’re a thief ? So what? You get befuddled by a middleclass morality? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheated on your wife? You did it, live with it …. You fuck little girls, so be it. There’s an absolute morality? May be. And then what?”

The rhythmic timing of “Mamet-speak” is as precise as Mozart’s, only different. That is, every note counts in its scatological way. The danger with “Mametspeak” is that it becomes locked in a style-it did!-lessening the impact of the ritual con games, the dislocated, jazzy repetitions, linguistic tics, all the fucks.

The salesmen in Glengarry are great talkers without the “right” words. You read between their inarticulate lines. In that sense, the play owes a big debt to Harold Pinter, British master of street language and its circumspect, brutal subtext.

To say the play is all male is a half-truth. It’s the absence of women that goes to the chauvinist heart of the matter. Women do not belong in this manly universe. They are aliens. They’re the mysterious, devouring things that Saul Bellow’s Herzog described eating green salad and drinking human blood.

Closing a deal in Glengarry is therefore compared lingeringly to the seduction of a woman. Same high.

The worst word in the play, however, is the dread C-word. It’s spoken only once-drawing a few gasps and nervous giggles from the audience. I can use any word in this open-minded paper, except that word. In England, from whence I came, it may be addressed to both men and women as a term of endearment. For example, “Hello, you old C-word. How are you today?” But in puritan America, it’s the lowest of the low. It’s significant that when a Mamet man wants to demolish another man, he calls him a C-word, the essence of womanhood.

I have one minor criticism about the production. Santo Loquasto’s set for Act I is too pretty and light. The local Chinese restaurant where Glengarry’s salesmen meet in booths should be a shady dump-the extension of their grungy office in Act II.

Otherwise, perfect.

Real Poetry

From Mr. Mamet’s street poetry to the real, live poetry of the Welshman Dylan Thomas, one of the greatest romantic poets and wrecked geniuses of modern times.

Wales is the country of fierce hymns and proud coal miners, of the best rugby players, of fantastic choirs, opera singers, actors and poets. It’s good to see Dylan Thomas played by a wonderful, expansive actor, Geraint Wyn Davies-a Welshman himself, I guess-in his one-man show at the adventurous little Mirror Repertory Company on West 71 Street. Small theater, mighty sound.

Thomas died in 1953, age 39, while staying at New York’s Chelsea Hotel during a rampaging promotional tour, when he was adopted by “society.” Nowhere is Mr. Davies more moving-and personally dismayed, it seems-than when he tells us how the cause of Thomas’ death was listed in the official post-mortem as an “insult to the brain.” Dylan Thomas was a terrible drunk, with his bulbous eyes and blubbery lips and ciggy. But he was a joy to all hearts in his enduring “craft or sullen art / Exercised in the still of night / When only the moon rages / And the lovers lie abed.”

The play’s title, Do Not Go Gentle, is taken from one of his best-known poems:

Do not go gentle into

that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at

close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the

light.

“I am a bit of a showoff, you know,” he announces, cheerfully introducing himself at the start of the evening. “Oh, by the way, I am Dylan Thomas.” And here Mr. Davies pauses to ask of us pitifully, “The poet?”

Well, this is a great chance to get on intimate terms with the man. Written and directed by Leon Pownall, the entertaining piece is not without its flaws however. I would have liked to have been more convinced that reductive Bardolatry-Thomas’ worship of Shakespeare-accounts for his self-loathing as an inferior poet.

Every poet is inferior to Shakespeare, and Thomas was favorably compared to Frost and Yeats. No, he was a man, more likely, who could not cope with the pain of being alive. A true bohemian like the rollicking Irish dramatist Brendan Behan (who also died of drink), Dylan Thomas remained a free spirit who brought joy to us and destruction to himself. “Someone’s boring me,” he once said in one of his funniest statements. “I think it’s me.” He was a great poet who drowned boredom in booze, and fled life.