"Glengarry Glen Ross" Doesn't Close the Deal at Blank Canvas

click to enlarge "Glengarry Glen Ross" Doesn't Close the Deal at Blank Canvas
Courtesy Blank Canvas

David Mamet, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Glengarry Glen Ross, a play which is now on stage at Blank Canvas, is noted for his unique style of writing dialogue. Dubbed “Mamet speak,” his vocal tone centers on precisely crafted street-smart narrative style. His characters talk “real.” They sound like the way people from the geographical area and societal level from which they come would really speak. This is not “speech for a play,” it is actual people speaking, with vocalized pauses (“ums,” “you know,” and “things like that").  

In his scripts, “he often uses italics and quotation marks to highlight particular words and to draw attention to his characters’ frequent manipulation and deceitful use of language. His characters frequently interrupt one another, their sentences trail off unfinished, and their dialogue overlaps.”

Mamet tends to write character studies, not well-made plot-driven shows.

Glengarry Glen Ross is definitely not plot driven. Instead, the razor-knife sharp tongued comedy, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, centers on employees of a realty company that sell property, such as Glengarry Highlands, to reluctant buyers.

The salesmen are desperate, cut throat. Men who cajole, wheel-and-deal to make “the board”—the list of who get prizes, such as new cars, for being the top salesman for the month. They will do anything to get the hot leads, people who might be sold whatever property the salesman is pushing.

The play takes place in Chicago in a two-day span during 1980 and showcases four Chicago real estate agents, who display their ability to lie, flatter, bribe, threaten, intimidate and even turn to burglary in order to sell each other and their clients.

This is not a made-up story. It reflects a period in Mamet’s life when he worked for a realty company and shared his time with Glen Ross-like salesmen.

Mamet introduces the characters in three-short scenes set in a Chinese restaurant, downstairs of the real estate office. The first scene finds Shelly Levene (Darrell Starnik), a past-his-prime agent trying to convince office manager, John Williamson (Daniel Scott Telford), to give him the names of some promising potential clients. Bribery and threats are the order of the day.

Scene 2 centers on Dave Moss (Jeff Glover) trying to convince George Aaronow (Chris D’Amico) to break into the office and steal the prime leads list which can be sold to a competitor for a considerable profit. Intimidation and playing on emotions highlights their conversation.

Scene 3 finds Richard Roma (Daniel McElhaney), the firm’s hotshot salesman, preying on the insecurities of James Lingk (Greg Mandryk), a man who Roma starts talking to in the restaurant. Using his charm, Roma beguiles Lingk to invest in some property. Charm, manipulation and careful “victim” analysis are center stage in this scene.

The long fourth scene (Act 2) shows the fallout from the office break-in, and puts the spotlight on the pressures under which the salesmen work and how those pressures effect each person.

The play opened on Broadway in 1984 and ran for almost a year. It was nominated for four Tony Awards. It was later made into a major motion picture starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemon, Alan Arkin, Alex Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce, Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey.

The Blank Canvas production has some high and low points.

In order for a Mamet play to work, the characters must be real. No acting here, no melodrama, no feigning realism, no fake gestures, no screaming without motivation, no overacting. Unfortunately, several of the actors in the cast simply didn’t seem up to the task. Whether it was opening night jitters, lack of understanding of Mamet’s writing, or the lack of ability, is an unknown factor.

McElhaney’s Ricky Roma, showed the right balance of the character’s virility, ruthlessness and slick immorality. He was clearly comfortable portraying the smooth talker with a tendency toward poetic soliloquies.

Greg Mandryk was spot on as the easily manipulated James Lingk who was cowed by Roma’s manipulative powers.

Chris D’Amico nicely created George Aaronow as a person lacking both confidence and hope, whose conscience stopped him from being manipulated into stealing the leads from the office by the overpowering Dave Moss (Jeff Glover who failed to texture his performance, shouting his way through almost all of his speeches).

Daniel Scott Telford as John Williamson, the young office manager who held his position due to paternalism, never quite established a clear character. His opening scene with Darrell Starnik set a weak tone for the rest of the play. Starnik, portraying Shelly Levene, surface acted, failed to “talk real.”

Whether the lack of airflow was intentional or not, the overly warm theatre intensified the emotional level of the play.

Blank Canvas’s Glengarry Glen Ross runs though August 20 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland. For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com