A Bad Business

Photo: Matt Owens

There are two issues here: Glengarry Glen Ross and the David Mamet phenomenon. Let’s take them in inverse order. That Mamet can write, he proved early in Sexual Perversity in Chicago and recently in Romance. But in between, things became iffy, hairy, and sometimes just plain poor. Mamet’s procedure is fracture of the language. He may start with sentences, which become shorter and shorter, and tend to devolve into sentence fragments. Forthwith they may be reduced to mere words, which, in turn, are apt to break off into forlorn syllables, sometimes single vowels or consonants interrupted by another speaker. Often there are only pauses, but those, to be sure, are bequests from Harold Pinter, like so many other questionable devices drawn by Mamet from that insalubrious well.

Mamet’s own, most idiosyncratic contribution is reveling in obscenity and scatology. Thus one twelve-word speech of Richard Roma’s in Glengarry contains five “fuck”s and one “fucking.” In the printed play, two “fuck”s are italicized, one also capitalized; three, plus the one “fucking,” are in capitals. The 1984 play, you may recall, takes place in a Chicago real-estate office—Mamet worked in one—where a bunch of hardened hucksters hustle worthless Florida land developments with those fancy Scottish monikers. A foulmouthed gang they are, though I doubt that even these guys would talk such mangled and mephitic Mametese. Glengarry’s two acts last 105 minutes; I reckon that just by cutting the “dirty” words, the whole thing could be turned into a slightly oversize one-acter.

It has been suggested that Mamet seems to like his awful characters a bit too much. Like them? He loves them. As I wrote in my 1984 review of the original production, “he revels in their brazen, agile crookedness. This strikes me as reprehensible, immoral. It would be all right in a totally cynical work such as Volpone, where the victims are merely inept versions of the victimizers; but the dupe in Glengarry is a pathetic nonentity, which makes the others monsters.” The new production does nothing but reinforce my opinion.

One might also comment on Mamet’s misogyny, subdued in this all-male play, though it leaks out in a line such as this about Indian women: “The broads all look like they just got fucked with a dead cat.” Sure, there is a plot here, and some of the salesmen come off worse than the others, but you can’t care for any of them, whether they are grubby little worms or slickly rapacious wolverines. The most disturbing thing may be Mamet’s effect on the audience. The night I attended, just about every “fuck” got at least a laugh somewhere in the house, and a spate of such language never failed to unleash gales of laughter. Any piece of devious one-upmanship pulled by the sleazy characters elicited thunderous approval, even applause. Clearly, this play is something not just to watch but to be wallowed in.

Granted, Joe Mantello has directed extremely adroitly, and the production values (sets by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Laura Bauer, and lighting by Kenneth Posner) are top-notch. And all the actors are very much on-target: Alan Alda as an old hand losing his grip, Gordon Clapp as a bloody-minded malcontent, Jeffrey Tambor as a bit of a dolt, Frederick Weller as a cold-blooded young supervisor, and Tom Wopat as a pathetic victim. Best of all, perhaps, in what is admittedly the meatiest role, is Liev Schreiber, as good as Joe Mantegna in the original production, which is to say terrific.

Of course, there’ll always be reviewers and audiences who groove on Mamet’s cloacal litanies, cataracts of cacology, and the nastily clever—but not all that clever—verbal power games that all gleefully indulge in. Whoever wants this is welcome to it; mud wrestling also has its dedicated fans. But what are we to make of a theater—of a culture—that considers this stuff high art?

Glengarry Glen Ross
by David Mamet.
Royale Theatre.
Through August 28.

A Bad Business