It has been said that an early draft of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed every man’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of property, before that last word was changed to “happiness.”
The American dream has involved confusion over the pursuits of property and happiness ever since.
The real estate salesmen dickering in the world of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” now playing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through Oct. 29, can see no goal greater than selling property that is probably worthless.
It doesn’t matter what lies they tell in the selling, or how helpless are the victims who take the bait. Success is measured by commissions. Paradise is the free Cadillac promised after a certain number of deals.
People may flinch at the language; the salesmen speak in rhythmic clusters of four-letter words. But far more shocking than what these predators say is why they say it: to pretend friendship as a calculated prelude to selling. The gritty, relentless barbarism of “Glengarry” is skillfully delineated by a strong core cast under the direction of Sam Woodhouse. At one end of the spectrum, Leonard Stone brings the accumulated weight of years of disappointments to the aging, burned-out salesman, Shelly Levene. Levene the Machine they call him, but the machine is just not nailing down the contracts the way he used to. He is a walking portrait of desperation, without a penny in his pocket, still trying, at the breaking point, to escape with the only skill he knows--cutting one last fatal deal.
At the other end is Howard Schechter as smooth super-salesman Richard Roma, young, fastidious and deft in using language to cajole, entice, convince and steal. William Anton chills the soul as the pitiless company man; Todd Blakesley inspires fear as the disgusted, impatient policeman investigating the suspicious office robbery that moves the plot. Damon Bryant tears the heart as the not-too-bright shill desperate to get his money back.
Only Drew Tombrello and Tom Oleniacz as the rest of the sales team, although forceful on the surface, fail to convey the troubled depths of men who have worshipped the dollar all their lives.
Kent Dorsey and Jane Hinson capture the dreary sterility of the men’s office environment and the Chinese restaurant where they do business under Brenda Berry’s harsh white lights. Debby Van Poucke’s jazzy sound design punctuates the tormented talk nicely. Nancy Jo Smith’s range of tacky to expensive suits sacrifices subtlety in an attempt to differentiate the characters of the salesmen.
It seems fitting that “Glengarry” was first produced in 1984, the same year that Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was revived by Dustin Hoffman.
For “Glengarry” is “Death of a Salesman” revisited--without pity. Someone with two theaters should try the two as a double-bill.
Miller’s salesman, Willy Loman, had a history. He was confused. He was looking for guidance from parents who weren’t there. He was trying to distill truths from fleeting conversations, and all he could remember was talk about a trip to the jungle that resulted in riches. Misguided as he was, Miller’s eulogy for him, as spoken by Willy’s one friend, is that no one should judge him. There were people and things that this man loved. Attention needed to be paid.
As playwright, Miller stepped into that role of providing guidance in the form of Willy’s friend, a man with better values of honesty, generosity, knowledge. It was too late for Willy, but it was not too late for the audience.
Mamet does no such hand-holding. His characters are judged and condemned much in the spirit of Dante, who hung a sign in front of the Inferno warning all comers to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Do these men have lovers, children, parents, anything that would do the equivalent of transforming the “Tin Men” of Barry Levinson’s movie about aluminum siding salesmen into real men? Levene mentions his daughter with pain, but he is cut off from telling her story. In Mamet’s unforgiving vision, the faint glimmers of humanity are not given room to add up to even a glimpse of salvation.
There are no rays of hope here, only shades of gray. That is the only area in which this magnificently realistic play is lacking. For intimations of humanity are part of the complete picture called reality. Without them, we can only have partial truths.
“GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS”
By David Mamet. Director is Sam Woodhouse. Set by Kent Dorsey and Jane Hinson. Lighting by Brenda Berry. Costumes by Nancy Jo Smith. Sound by Debby Van Poucke. Stage manager is Elizabeth Lohr. With Leonard Stone, William Anton, Drew Tombrello, Tom Oleniacz, Howard Schechter, Damon Bryant and Todd Blakesley. At 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29. At the Lyceum Stage, Horton Plaza, San Diego.