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Men at Work 

Theater Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

Published November 17, 2005 at 4:02 a.m.

Real estate is a parasitic profession, full of sleazy opportunists willing to sell you anything for the right commission: their grandmother, some worthless swampland in Florida, or their soul. This is the blistering portrait painted by David Mamet's feral play, Glengarry Glen Ross. He wrote it in 1983, and he's probably had a hard time finding a realtor to work with him ever since.

Glengarry is a pageant of Man at His Worst. Mamet's meaty, testosterone-fueled roles have attracted big-name thespians, from the Chicago premiere (Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh), to the 1992 Hollywood screen adaptation (Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino), to the current Broadway revival (Alan Alda, Liev Schreiber). Actors relish the chance to play Really Bad Boys: low-rent con artists, with serious anger-management issues, who swear enough to make George Carlin blush.

For the Green Mountain Glengarry, director Bob Cady has assembled a vigorous and colorful cast. Headlined by volcanic Adam Cunningham as the shiny-suited Beelzebub Ricky Roma, the ensemble conjured the frenetic desperation of men in a moral abyss. Remarkably, the actors also generated sympathy and even affection for the unredeemed, and unredeemable, characters they played.

Mamet's salesmen inhabit a dingy and depressing world, in which "a man's his job," and his masculinity is measured by how much and how hard he sells. For the four agents in this office, their livelihood depends on hawking false dreams -- getting gullible Midwesterners to "invest" in worthless tracts of land in Florida. In order to boost revenue, the unseen bosses have devised a demented sales contest. The winner gets a Cadillac. The loser gets canned.

Officious manager John Williamson is stingy at doling out the office's most important commodity -- the leads on possible clients. The salesmen jockey for the names like starving chicks clamoring for worms. Slumping veteran salesman Shelly Levene finds himself in a catch-22. With the premium prospects going to the current top producers like Roma, Shelly has virtually no chance of regaining his old form.

Act I opens in the dark confines of a claustrophobic restaurant, where the salesmen have gone to let off some steam about the contest. Levene begs, then tries to bribe, Williamson for some "premium" leads. Loose cannon Dave Moss, bent on punishing the bosses, tries to convince his frustrated coworker George Aaronow to break into the office, steal the files of leads and sell them to another agency. Only Roma remains cool, sipping his martini and working his sales magic on an unsuspecting customer.

The second act takes place the next day, in the ransacked office. The leads have been stolen and Detective Baylen is interrogating the staff. Meanwhile, both Roma and Levene have made big, new sales. Everyone is rattled. What happens to the contest? Whodunnit? Motives abound, and every suspect erupts with anger.

No one was more explosive than Adam Cunningham as top dog Richard Roma. He mixed suave charm with red-faced choleric rage as the man-of-a-thousand-faces salesman. To seduce a customer, he fawned and ministered like a gentle, priestly version of Dr. Phil, his voice so soothing it was almost a purr. To excoriate Williamson, he spewed epithets with unbridled fury. To massage Levene's ego, he feigned admiration with smiling compliments that seemed genuine. Cunningham depicted the master manipulator's many sides with brilliant clarity. He was so good at being bad, he gave Roma a guilty-pleasure likability.

Levene used to have Roma's mojo. Dennis McSorley beautifully captured the damaged spirit of a man who felt he once was somebody, subtly wincing with the physical pain of Levene's humiliation. Levene can hardly believe that he has to grovel to Williamson, that the younger men are trouncing him in the contest, that a career of hot streaks has gone cold. Initially, McSorley played Levene as an injured animal, alternating between lashing out and retreating to lick his wounds. Ultimately, he surrendered a little too easily; a final flare of aggression would have made the emotional impact of Levene's fate more profound.

The rest of the ensemble strongly supported Cunningham and McSorley. As the oily office manager Williamson, David DiLego cultivated a layer of calm control over his character's emotions, designed to infuriate the more mercurial salesmen by asserting his power over them. DiLego stood tall, rarely flinching, as they hurled violent streams of profanity at him -- in one tirade Roma calls him a woman, a child and a homosexual . . . and not in such G-rated language.

The duo of Moss and Aaronow provided some comic relief, especially in the first act, when the obviously smarter Moss tries to rope Aaronow into his plot to steal the leads. Jason P. Lorber sometimes played Moss a little too close to the edge of hysteria -- the pitch of his voice edging up, eyes bugging out -- overshadowing his character's scheming side, which he played compellingly. As Aaronow, Ethan Alsruhe had an appealing haplessness, his broad expression alternately registering exasperation and befuddlement. His character, alone among the salesmen, is sick of the macho gamesmanship and wants out.

Kevin Christopher played customer James Lingk with sheepish emasculation -- head hanging, shoulders slumping -- caught in the neutering trap of his unseen wife's demands, Roma's hard sell and his own insecurities. As Detective Baylen, the aptly named Steve Sergeant manhandled the subjects of his interrogation with a no-nonsense, Joe Friday swagger. Of course, he carried his manhood on his hip, in the form of a handgun.

As ably as director Bob Cady guided his actors, he also marshaled a slick array of technical elements. He and producer Rebeque Cady also served as set and costume designers. Rumpled suits reflected crumbling lives; only Roma was perfectly pressed, and his shiny red tie was as sure a sign of the devil as if he'd worn horns and carried a pitchfork.

The architecture of the Cadys' sets cleverly addressed the acoustical vacuum that seems to suck the spoken word into the Waterfront Theatre's rafters. A heavy curtain hung from the ceiling behind the restaurant booths, which were positioned at the very front of the stage. The office set was boxed in on three sides with backdrop partitions. Both devices helped the actors' voices project forward into the audience, and all the dialogue was clearly audible. Of course, it didn't hurt that Glengarry is a play about seven men who frequently yell at one another.

Colin Fletcher's lighting played up the atmospheric contrasts between the dusky-hideaway feel of the sparsely furnished, cramped restaurant and the over-bright, sickly yellow tenor of the dishev- eled office. A wealth of detail established the early '80s period: Naugahyde restaurant booths, a smiling portrait of President Reagan on the office wall, and hideous, mismatched desk chairs in harvest gold and burnt orange.

The '70s disco and funk music playing as the audience came in -- "Theme from Shaft," "Games People Play" -- also helped set the time period, and presaged some of the bad behavior that was about to unfold. After the final curtain, it was a clever touch to have audience members walk out to "Money, Money, Money," The Apprentice theme song for the current king of real estate, Donald Trump.

This polished show featuring well-crafted performances deserved a bigger audience -- there were just 10 people in attendance the night I went. With seven major productions opening in the first half of November, however, we may be reaching the saturation point of northern Vermont's theatergoing public. The Waterfront Theatre was meant to address a perceived shortage of performing space for local companies, but if the audience is spread too thin, it could spell financial trouble for the players, and for the new house, and that would be a shame.

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Elisabeth Crean


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