Glengarry Glen Ross
Deep Dish Theater Company
Through Nov. 14
Here's the picture—and it's not a pretty one: Unemployment is skyrocketing in the U.S.; its peak, somewhere north of 16 percent, represents the country's highest level of joblessness since the Great Depression. Credit is tight; home sales are tanking. There have been clear signs of crisis for more than a year before the president finds enough integrity to use the R-word—recession—and admit that the economy is in significant trouble.
But the year is 1982, not 2008. The president isn't George Bush; it's Ronald Reagan. And in Chicago, David Mamet is writing a play about a quartet of desperate real estate salesmen facing a staff-reduction ploy masquerading as a sales contest—one that will put half of them on the street at the end of the month.
First prize is a Cadillac. Second's a set of steak knives.
Third prize? You're fired.
Those are the stakes in Glengarry Glen Ross, a scuzzy, profane and frequently hilarious profile of high-pressure salesmanship, big-ticket business scams and office politics with the gloves off, in hard times too close to our own for comfort.
This Deep Dish Theater production achieves our highest recommendation—and only our 11th five-star review since we instituted the system in 2003—on the basis of superior acting, direction, design and script. Artistic Director Paul Frellick leads a seasoned cast of regional veterans and a notable newcomer or two in a theatrical night out with the boys that is not to be missed. The director and cast navigate the choppy waters and jazzy counter-rhythms of Mamet's text, which stands as a world-class primer in the less-than-delicate art of verbal self-defense. With actors David Ring, John Murphy, Harvey Sage and talented new arrival Joshua Purvis wielding the playwright's trademark invective with expert timing, Glengarry Glen Ross repeatedly suggests the verbal equivalent of a kung fu film, with all the nonfight scenes removed. That's right: All that's left is the good stuff.
The three scenes in Mamet's first act comprise a series of sparring semifinals in a Chinese restaurant at the end of a long day. As Purvis' Roma slowly, professionally, hypnotizes an unsuspecting patsy into a shady Florida land deal, David Ring's Levene, an aging salesman far behind in the race, repeatedly vacillates between browbeating and wheedling stuck-up office manager John Williamson (a slow-burning Byron Jennings) for some decent leads. Meanwhile, John Murphy's vindictive and ever-so-slightly racist Moss patiently lays out a plan to subvert the sales contest—one that has his slightly dimmer fellow salesman Aaronow (Harvey Sage) assuming all of the risk.
With these threads established, Act 2 suggests the business equivalent of a pro wrestling cage match. Jennifer Mann Becker's appropriately dingy storefront set telegraphs the flimsiness of this out-of-state land sale operation, as the quartet in the first act contends with one another in ever-escalating displays of sales—and verbal—machismo. Making matters worse, the cops are now sniffing around. What results is the real estate edition of Lord of the Flies, with a rapidly thinning veneer of Dale Carnegie on top.
In these ludicrous exercises in male gender identification, a man's not a man unless he can pull off a string of potential Class C felonies and then rationalize the acts in terms to ingratiate a Marine drill instructor. The sketchy scams and imperfect hustles hatched by these less-than-master manipulators leave us amused and aghast, their exploits interrupted only by sound designer (and Indy contributor) Marc Maximov's herky-jerky montage of postmodern cargo cult dance songs by the late, great Talking Heads.