Nothing beats an antihero. They’re simply more fascinating than their heroic counterparts. Sure, we all want to believe in the moral ideal of selflessly doing the right thing solely for the sake of goodness and the betterment of those around us, and characters who reflect those hopes are a necessary presence in fiction. Yet it’s to the antihero who, like it or not, we can more relate. The individual who’s devoid of the traditional attributes of heroism and instead acts out of a self-serving (though not necessarily wicked) attitude that occasionally coincides with a personal code of morality is more likely to represent the bulk of us rather than the altruists. Even setting aside the similarities we see between ourselves and fictional characters, the antiheroes bring much more uncertainty to the plot than your run-of-the-mill hero. We want to support these characters as our protagonists, but know full well that they are capable of despicable actions at any moment. At this point it’s no longer how far they’ll go before falling off the morality cliff, but how long we, the audience, can enjoy these characters before they lose our sympathies.
Inspired by the playwright’s experiences as an office manager in a real estate office in the 1970s, Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play that follows the machinations of a Chicago real estate agency and its team of duplicitous agents. As their employers put forward an ultimatum to fire all but the best agents, the crew covers a variety of immoral means through which each of them hopes to save their careers no matter who they have to throw under the bus to get there.
As the play begins we are introduced to the sole set for Act I, a table at a Chinese restaurant. The set is almost as stripped down as you can get, maintaining the bare essentials while removing any unnecessary flair. Remember, this is a Mamet play, so one of its inherent strengths is the dialogue, and Act I solely depends on its dialogue. The three scenes consist of three separate conversations between different pairs of men who rarely deviate from their meal, so to extend the set beyond two simple tables would be unnecessary. It would only serve either to distract from the dialogue or make a slapdash attempt at realism. The only minor fault with it was found in an occasionally flickering light over the lesser-used table which could have been either an attempt to recreate a faulty light in a dingy restaurant or an actual faulty light onstage. Either way, the admittedly minor flickers continually distracted during Act I. However, to strikingly contrast the simplicity of Act I’s set, Andy Berkovsky’s design for Act II is an elaborate, highly detailed office that’s immediately telling of the business and the people who work for it. The walls are stained, desks are messy, the water cooler is empty, and is reminiscent of every sleazy salesman’s office you’ve ever seen. Given the impeccability of the agents’ attire (costumed by Rosalie Oliveri), it speaks volumes that they surround themselves with such filth and squalor while focusing all of their efforts on their appearances. Together they do what all designers should strive to do, give an immediate impression of the setting and its occupants without distracting from the production.
But what good is a play with strong dialogue without strong actors to say those lines? Much like Berkovsky’s Act II set, most of the cast give us an immediate, accurate impression of their characters and performances from their first scenes. Act I gives us a healthy dose of most of the cast, particularly those who become the main focus in Act II, so let’s go about this chronologically. We begin with Jonathan Pollei as down-on-his-luck sales veteran Shelly Levene and J. Kevin Smith as office manager John Willamson. Pollei’s opening monologue pegs him as immediately infuriating, and I swear I mean that in a positive manner. As one of the most desperate characters in the play, Pollei’s depiction of Levene is full of the smarmy showmanship of a salesman, but unlike his more successful colleagues he’s more prone to mood swings. One moment he’s confident and cutting off Williamson from talking back, but before long he plays the desperate beggar on the verge of breaking. Even later in the show, in which Levene exudes confidence, Pollei has an almost deranged lust for superiority in his eyes that makes him captivating. The scene is strengthened by Smith’s brick wall authority reminiscent of his titular role in Arden of Faversham.Smith’s steely countenance of confidence balances well with the animated desperation present on Pollei’s face. From the manner in which they speak to one another to the seemingly mundane way Smith continues to eat while Pollei talks at him, the status of the two men is instantly felt, Levene the seasoned agent on shaky ground and Williamson the inexperienced manager secure in his position of authority.
The following scene introduces us to two more agents from the office, Dave Moss and George Aaronow (played by Reynolds Washam and David Wolff respectively). To continue this production’s trend of instantaneous identifiers, Washam and Wolff, through their expressions and mannerisms, both come off as nervous and cornered. Washam is the epitome of stoic desperation, as if Pollei and Smith’s characters’ motivations merged. Granted, given that his first line in the play disparages Polish individuals it’s also safe to say that he’s not the most virtuous fellow onstage (though more on that later). Unfortunately, Wolff’s portrayal of Aaronow was lackluster. True, the character of Aaronow is meant to be a tad more timid, nervous, and worried than the rest of the cast given that his typical workplace performance threatens his current career status, but Wolff’s take on him was a tad too goofy at times. His mockery of Detective Baylen (Dave Westenbarger) late in the play comes to mind as a moment that felt as if it were trying to force a comedic moment out of a script that is ripe with laughs from the bitter realism and back-handedness of the characters. If director Karen Sneed’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross had depicted the cast as caricatures then this performance might have worked, but when juxtaposed with everyone else who play their roles straight he simply feels out of place.
And then there’s Steve Shearer as the infamous Ricky Roma, the top agent at the office. It’s safe to say that while I’ve seen a variety of Roma’s in other productions of Glengarry Glen Ross, the actors who depict him are unanimously charismatic and enticing despite their underhanded nature. Though our introduction to Roma is a mostly one-sided conversation at the end of Act I he really comes into the light in Act II when the whole cast moves to the real estate office the following day. Shearer clearly calls the shots around the office as he is the only agent who commands any respect and apprehension from Williamson and can keep Detective Baylen at bay whereas everyone else soon buckles under his barks. It’s through Shearer that the intrigue of the production can be found. All of these men are terrible people that you want to detest, but you simply can’t. Their conversations are riddled with casual racism and sexism, they spout enough swears to shame their mothers, but you still can’t help but like and relate to these fellows and their struggles. As salesmen, they’re all naturally smooth wordsmiths that speak as if they’re inviting you into their families despite the fact that we, as audience members, know they’re despicable liars. Shearer leads this brigade as the most charming yet smarmiest performer of them all. He’s perpetually above it all and acts as if he’s in command of his own destiny in a scenario filled with uncertainty and panic. He’s a clear standout in an already solid ensemble.
Anyone who has seen or read Glengarry Glen Ross before is well aware of the incessant cut-offs and interruptions within the script that lend a rushed, business-like realism to the dialogue. It’s one of strengths of the script offering sincerity, anxiety, and narcissism to the way in which the characters speak. Thankfully, this cast stays on top of those cuts throughout. There’s never a moment that lags or leaves an awkward pause between interrupted lines. It’s a clear sign of the cast’s efforts and familiarity with the script. Save for one weak performance, Glengarry Glenn Ross is a stellar production that leaves you both shocked and impressed with the suave, smug, and smarmy cynicism people can attain to drive their survival instincts in a harsh world.
Glengarry Glen Ross continues playing at The City Theatre Company every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until November 6th.