After a sold-out West End run in 2017/18, David Mamet’s Olivier– and Pulitzer Award-winning play ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, embarks on its first UK tour.
Four salesmen are pitched in a fierce competition to see who can sell the most real estate – Richard ‘Ricky’ Roma, Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene, Denis Conway‘s disillusioned Dave Moss and Wil Johnson’s endearingly moral George Aaronow. First prize: a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize: a set of steak knives. Third prize: they’re fired. In the cut-throat world of real estate, these men will go to just about any lengths to close a deal.
This is a world where a man is measured by how many deals he closes.
A concise play, the first act lasts only 35 minutes, the second, 55. The first scenes of the production take place inside a Chinese restaurant, with tables and booth seating, and red lanterns hanging from the ceiling. It is here we are introduced to the characters, in three sets of pairs. The curtain lifts on Levene and Williamson, with Levene begging, bribing, Williamson to share better leads with him. We then meet Moss who, fed up with the pressure of his job, and where the profit is going, tries to gain an accomplice in Aaronow, with an eye to taking something back. Finally, we meet Roma and potential client James Lingk. With Roma’s poetic philosophies on the meaning of life, however, it is not immediately clear he is in the middle of closing a deal, and it is only at the end of the act, when he pushes a piece of paper over to Lingk, do we understand the subtle skill of these salesmen in selling something to a person that they really don’t need, and without them even knowing.
The second act takes place within a Chicago office, one that has been burgled. This detailed and dense corporate environment forces the men to work in a close proximity, and tensions mount as lies are peeled away.
The cast of seven males ensures the environment on stage is very much a masculine one, fuelled by testosterone and man-to-man competition as the play negotiates what makes a man.
Nigel Harman plays high-flyer Ricky Roma, top of the leaderboard where closing deals is concerned. Incredibly skilled when it comes to sales, he tells his clients, as we see with James Staddon’s James Lingk, to forget the deal. “The deal is dead”. Instead, he makes it seem as though he is solely interested in the welfare of the client. However, though the deal remains at the forefront in his mind, he encourages his clients to open up to him. In so doing, he uncovers their weaknesses, and can use that information to manipulate the thoughts of the person, and push for a close. A quick thinker and good liar, he occasionally develops a poetic eloquence, in which an honesty does reside, as he philosophises about the very meaning of life.
Mark Benton’s Levene is acutely charismatic, a larger-than-life personality. Fond of looking back, reminiscing on his glory days, he is desperate to prove himself once more, desperate to get his name on the board, he hopes such a time will come again. Towards the end of the play, when he is describing his recent closure of a remarkable sale, worth $82,000, his retelling is so dramatic, so tantalising, we see just how much this means to him, just how much this career defines him as a man.
According to Levene, “a man is his job”. In this masculine environment, the notion of closing deals is what makes these men, men. There exists this supposed correlation between a man’s career, and his standing as a man. Therefore, it stands to this old-fashioned way of reasoning that those that are not succeeding at their work, those that are not closing enough deals, are less than a man.
Scott Sparrow’s John Williamson is, on paper, the figure of authority in the office. However, disrespected by the other characters, despite the fact that it is he who hands out those all-important leads, he is called a ‘secretary’. A pen-pusher, he works from behind a desk, making sure the others stick to the rule-book. However, with no street smarts himself, he does not realise that such rules often do not apply to real life, out on the street, where Roma and Levene, learned to do what must be done, should one want to succeed. As a result, he is viewed as less than a man by his colleagues, who consider themselves superior to him in all but name.
Other than Mamet’s biting dialogue, which is spoken with an authentic naturalness by the cast, there is no other sound. No extraneous noise pierces the sound of deals being closed. The only sound is of these men talking. The lack of anything piercing the silence between lines allows what is being said to echo. Significantly here, the focus is purely on what these men are saying, to each other, and to their clients. Business is the music of this production, the melody one of lies, greed and corruption. This is a soundscape of sales. And yet, that’s all it is – just talk. Empty words. Land, property – these skilful salesman manipulate the thoughts of others to make it seem as though they are not just selling them material things – they are selling them possibilities. Opportunities. Dreams.
We listen to these men listing a property to their client “that thing you’ve been dreaming of”. What these salesman manage to do is to convince people, ultimately, to lie to them, that this land, this property, this ‘thing’, is everything they have wanted for, all they have ever wanted, and all they will ever want. Not to mention, is everything they ever need.
In the office space, standing centre stage is a blackboard, bearing the names of the salesmen, or those few who have managed to close deals, written in chalk. The men are treated as children with this reward system, a Cadillac dangled in front of them like carrots, whilst they fight amongst themselves over who gets the best lead. Chalk, far from a permanent substance, is easily wiped away, leaving no trace behind. This blackboard serves to show the contingent nature of the ruthless world of real estate, and we see just how easily these characters go from closing premium leads, to entering a dry period, a bad streak. Regardless, the glory associated with having your name at the top of the blackboard is a temporary one, and in reality, will most likely come to nothing. This in itself, perhaps, acts as a testament as to the chalkiness of the American Dream, as these characters dream in chalk.
The show’s mantra is “always be closing”. Ironically, however, there is no finite closure at the end of this production, and the play ends as abruptly as it began. The whole play centres around this idea of closure, of the closing of deals, and now, there is an element of limbo. We do not know what will happen to our salesmen. We do not know whether the Cadillac will make its way to the hands of the winner. We do know whether James will continue with his cancellation of his deal. We do not know how certain characters will be punished for engaging in illegal activity. Instead, the audience are left to negotiate an ending for ourselves. Whilst real estate deals are closed left, right and centre, we are made to wonder whether life itself has any measure of closure.
When we first meet him, Levene keeps referencing years gone by, times where he enjoyed a good streak. He looks backwards. Although he is not enjoying the same luck he did back then, what these dates prove is that compeitition in this sector, in this life, has always been present, and always will be. We continue to be trapped in a merciless cycle of capitalism, in a world where everybody is chasing after something, be it “stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate”. In such things, people spy the foundation of which to build their dreams, not realising the futility of what is the greatest dream of all – the American Dream. For this dream, this elusive fantasy offering the promise of opportunity, there can be no closure. For capitalism, there can be no closure. It is like chasing after the wind.
One has to ask, concerning these leads, whether they really lead anywhere? Sure, one lead might lead to another lead. But where will that lead lead? Life, according to Roma, is “looking forward or it’s looking back. And that’s our life. That’s it”. Where is the moment?”. Their names might move a little higher up the board. They might take a higher profit. But really, these men are just chasing after the next big lead, trying to get one up on another, believing this reinforces their masculinity. But this constant chasing of new leads actually means that they are missing out on the moment. On now. On life.
Instead of chasing after the elusive American Dream, which so many continue to be drawn in by today, always on the look-out for the next big thing, we should learn to live in the moment.
Playwright Mamet was onto something with this play, and director Sam Yates follows his lead.
Like a hot property that’s just been put on the market, this play certainly sparks interest. A short, sharp, slick satire about a group of silver-tongued salesmen desperate for their shot, this production, pushing its characters to close as many deals as possible before time runs out, reveals the cracks, and the absence of closure, in the American Dream, as these men try, and fail, to barter for a better life.
‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ signs, seals, delivers… and closes the deal.