The best speech associated with Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t in the play at all. David Mamet’s bruising tale of wretched salesmen at a dodgy real estate outfit won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984, but these days it feels a bit naked without the oft-parodied “coffee is for closers” monologue Mamet wrote for Alec Baldwin for James Foley’s 1992 film adaptation. Baldwin’s unnamed character (“Fuck! You! That’s my name!”) enters the movie eight minutes in and exits seven minutes later, but the cruel energy of his single scene propels the film through its remaining hour and a half. Besides providing the most irresistible quotes (“Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!”), Baldwin’s decree that all but the office’s top two earners will be fired in a week’s time sharpens the motivation for the backstabbing and eye-clawing to follow. It also gives a face (and a literal pair of brass balls) to the soul-poisoning greed that has so disfigured the other characters.
That is to say, the ones the play is about.
Round House Theatre’s solid, if not revelatory, new production, which clocks in at a brisk 80 minutes, is directed by Mitchell Hébert, an actor whose stunning work in Theater J’s 2011 After the Fall helped make that production unforgettable. Given the filthy musicality of Mamet’s dialogue, and the fact that the playwright’s own directing style is often characterized as “just say the words the way I wrote them,” it’s amusing to imagine how a performer of Hébert’s skill might advise other actors to approach the famous contrarian’s text. Hébert, after all, was the man alone onstage at the end of Woolly Mammoth’s 2010 Clybourne Park. Forget “just say the words”—the silent final moment of Clybourne, wherein Hébert did nothing more than sit down and read an old letter, echoes in my memory like nothing else from that year.
We’ve got some ringers onstage this time, too. Rick Foucheux is Shelley Levene, the oldest, most desperate of this pitiable bunch. If you saw Foucheux play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Arena Stage five years ago, you already know he’d nail this part. I love that after making office manager John pay for lunch at the end of the first scene (which is in the script), he pockets the check money on the table (which isn’t, but it’s a great add). Alexander Strain brings a grifter’s ease to the role of reigning sales champ Ricky Roma. He looks and probably is a generation younger than the other actors, which serves the material, especially since the product the salesmen are pushing is Florida swampland—the promise of a comfortable retirement someplace warm and far away from the stale-coffee Thunderdome where these sad sacks smoke and curse away their waning days.
James Kronzer’s revolving set renders the Chinese restaurant and dingy office where the piece’s two acts are set with velvet ambience and mission-focused austerity, respectively, but it feels like more decoration than is needed.
Still, it’s easy to watch a cast this fine clip through a piece of drama this good. What’s surprising is how much additional resonance the piece hasn’t acquired in 20 or 30 years. It’s a great play by any measure, but a tectonic-level financial crisis, and Mamet’s hard-right political shift, and even his Shelley Levene–like cold streak of late (his latest, The Anarchist, flopped on Broadway while an Al Pacino-anchored Glengarry revival packed in crowds just two doors down) now make it seem quaint. The Levenes and Romas of the world actually had to look us in the eye and put their sweaty palms in ours before they could bilk us out of our savings.