BWW Review: GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, Playhouse Theatre
David Mamet's Pulitzer-winning play, which premiered at the National in 1983, in back in London in a star-studded, pugilistic revival from Sam Yates. Though kept firmly in period, it's not hard to find skin-crawling contemporary parallels in Mamet's exposure of a toxic capitalist culture ruled by the art of the deal.
We begin with three consecutive two-handers, all set in an empty Chinese restaurant. Under the glow of red paper lanterns, rendering the deal-making eerily Satanic, fading salesman Shelly Levene pleads with stony office manager Williamson for better leads; the motor-mouthed Moss embroils colleague Aaronow in a robbery plot; and hotshot salesman Ricky Roma seduces a helpless schmuck of a new client.
After a (too lengthy) interval, we're relocated to the real estate sales office - grey, claustrophobic and thoroughly ransacked, in Chiara Stephenson's evocative design. A robbery has indeed taken place, so there's a whodunit alongside the usual cutthroat competition of a firm that rewards its best with Cadillacs and its strugglers with termination.
The office is dominated by The Board: a blackboard with a list of top earners. It's a stark illustration that each name, each person, is equated solely with how much money they're bringing in - and that system has infected the men to feel the same way.
Stanley Townsend is outstanding as Levene, who goes from desperate wheedler, shifting up and down the restaurant booth as he pleads his case, to swaggering hero returning triumphant from battle when he makes a sale. "I got my balls back," he proclaims, underlining the fact that success equals a distorted kind of masculinity.
Yates astutely draws out Mamet's critique and also his slight romanticising of 'the salesman'. When Levene settles in to tell his war story - the couple he gradually won over, sitting down to eat crumb cake with them ("store bought", he sniffs), holding out the pen as the minutes ticked by - it's a spellbinding moment.
But of course it's also fake. However they characterise it, these are ruthless deceivers using every trick they know to lure unsuspecting people into extravagant purchases of dodgy land. It's capitalism unfettered, the root of financial crisis, and the very essence of short-term greed. The good old days never really existed.
That dichotomy is embodied by a terrifyingly charismatic Christian Slater as Roma. Luxuriating in one of the great character introductions, and later entering into a fantastic bit of playacting with Levene to further ensnare Daniel Ryan's guileless, panicking mark, he makes Roma's technique so impressive we almost forget how ruinous it is.
As an audience, we're pretty much ready to buy what he's selling, until the shark emerges. His takedown of Williamson is laser-focussed and coldly cruel, and his office strop betrays the prima donna beneath the chummy, bromantic seduction. "You talkin' to me?" he snaps at the cop investigating the break-in, Slater giving his best De Niro.
A key element of the play is Mamet's very specific patter - the clipped or overlapping speech, the interjections and repetitions that read like music. Yates's ensemble has a firm grasp on it, particularly Slater and Townsend, but impressive too are Robert Glenister's Moss - a restless, expletive-spewing ball of fury - and his tonal opposite, Don Warrington's wretched Aaronow, whose stuttered protests soon recede into the background.
Countering this wall of noise is Kris Marshall's box-ticking company man Williamson, who cares about figures, not the men, nor the superstitious allure of hot streaks and hero plays. Marshall, physically as well as verbally controlled, betrays just a hint of panic when pushed to the limit: he, too, has a job on the line.
That's the truth beneath this swaggering, testosterone-fuelled façade, the ultimate scam. By binding their identities so thoroughly to their jobs, this seething group - seemingly chasing power and wealth - are really running away from failure and vulnerability. It's a chastening lesson in placing faith in those prepared to bully, lie, cheat or steal their way to the deal, only to find their prize is a hollow one.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner