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A Holiday Shark Quest? 

A new regional company to be reckoned with takes Mamet to the wall.

It's the kind of tale I live to tell: Those who'd already written off Durham's Triangle Theatre Festival after an admittedly lackluster inaugural season stopped writing just a little too soon.

For if the proof's in the pudding (as they say this time of year), then proof's aplenty in this Bull City Players production of the David Mamet classic Glengarry Glen Ross, whose too-brief run ends this Sunday at Durham Arts Council's PSI Theater.

Those whose psychological blood sugar levels have already been dangerously elevated by guy-wired sugar plums and bucktoothed Scrooges making like Jerry Lewis--once again--in same-old "updates" of same-old Christmas shtick, may find a bracing antidote in this production of Mamet's funny, profane and dramatic script.

After all, what says "holidays" more than a theatrical vivisection of a shady high-pressure Chicago real estate sales office in the mid-1980s?

Those who saw the 1992 film (whose stellar cast included Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Kevin Spacey) may recall the sharks schooling around a suburban Chi-town Chinese restaurant--and how politely they behave when one of their own seems destined for the menu.

But Mamet's vivid portrait mainly explores the oxymoron of business ethics, particularly as practiced by five Chicago salesmen who all believe themselves grandmasters of emotional and psychological manipulation. In their world, sales, as it turns out, is a game of conquest--one composed of completely breaking down someone's defenses and getting them to behave as you wish. This generally (but not always) involves the spending of lots of money, usually against the client's better judgment.

Indeed, there's an undeniably hypnotic, overtly Machiavellian edge to actor David McClutchey's first scene as young turk Richard Roma, ever so slowly reeling in a new sucker--er, customer--on a sketchy land deal down in Florida. The closest comparison to it involves a spectacularly low-rent version of Ocean's Eleven--or an unusually active episode of Animal Planet's Big Cat Diary.

In this life, the close makes the man, to coin a phrase. The ability to seal a deal despite (or on top of) a client's objections defines the successful salesman-cum-predator. One of the squirmier sections in a relentless second act suggests the psycho-economic analogue of rape (if such a thing can be said to exist), as Roma's character desperately tries to salvage an unravelling deal by violating the boundaries of a clearly troubled customer.

It's clear that Shelly, John, Dave, George and Richard, the quintet in Glengarry Glen Ross, have taken that practical sales maxim "Always Be Closing" as their template for all human interactions. The men are always jockeying for position, for advantage, looking for the edge, the exploitable weakness, not only in their clients, but in each other.

As a result, inter-office rivalries, like a euphemistic "sales contest" actually being used to weed out the weak and close the unproductive branch we look in on, turn into an ongoing pissing war of exponentially increasing animosity. Mamet's reputation for salty dialogue is entirely earned here, in passages where characters effectively use words as blunt objects to stake out turf and drive off fellow predators.

But a production that ultimately achieved fever pitch by the second act of its matinee last Sunday didn't do so without a considerably slower start. Grant full credit to Farrell Reynolds, who is little less than captivating as older salesman Shelly, in an act-two manifesto where his character verbally decimates his predatory office manager, John.

Still, in the opening scene where Jack Prather's priggish John shakes down Shelly for a kickback in exchange for worthwhile leads, the two actors at first seemed to find Mamet's signature cross-rhythms all but unnavigable. This unusually cold opening warmed up fast with Al Singer and David Berberian's second-scene duet, where Berberian's boorish character, Dave, tries to rope Singer's timid George into taking all the risks on a certain after-hours "project" at the office.

When Singer and Berberian showed they could verbally spar with the best of them, and act one closed with the Wild Kingdom sales pitch cited above, the show was clearly out of the woods. By the end of act two, a new theater company to be reckoned with had clearly emerged.

After intermission, director Anthony Caporelli closed the deal, so to speak, by letting his actors off leash with gratifying effects, in an erstwhile morning sales meeting suddenly gone auto-carnivorous. Repeatedly, Mamet takes his characters to the wall in Glengarry Glen Ross. So does this Bull City Players production.

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