By Jonathan Alexandratos
And the worst part is: it really is a good script. Mamet crafted, circa 1984, a story that, superficially, is about men who work as real estate agents, selling land to customers that they basically scam into buying. Under this, though, the play is about the hollowness of male machismo, and that, though this attitude is obviously destructive to women, it is just as destructive to men. Which was a key problem in the 1980s, wasn’t it? Catch phrases like “Greed is Good” and the glorification of the wealthy, strong, alpha male in Reagan’s America created an atmosphere where it was essential for a man to *appear,* and not of much concern for him to *be.* Yet, men believed (and still believe) that this macho attitude ought to define them to their core. The reason such men typically become Venn Diagrams of bad decisions is because the idea that they’ve held at their very center is, in actuality, void of substance, and cannot possibly hold the weight of human emotion.
Enter this GLENGARRY production, where director Daniel Sullivan has decided the story would be better told not through character, but through caricature. Al Pacino, who plays the old-timer Shelly Levine in this production (he was the hotshot Ricky Roma in the 1992 film), needlessly gyrates, mimes actions, and goes cartoonishly bug-eyed through many of his lines – lines which Jack Lemmon (in the film version) played with such understated nobility, such restraint, such genuine *belief.* Shelly Levine is an imprisoned man. In the play, Levine (spoiler alert) robs the real estate office in order to steal very valuable leads which he can then sell. It is revealed very early on, however, that Levine has an ailing daughter. The line (in the play – not so much in the film) is easily missed: at the top of Act I, Levine tries numerous macho tactics to entice Williamson (his boss) into handing over the more valuable leads, so Levine can have a shot at making a reasonable amount of money. Only after all else has failed does Levine mutter, “My daughter—” Here is Mamet’s strength: Mamet, like his inspiration Harold Pinter, can make two words say more than most other playwrights’ entire acts. It is, then, no wonder that, when Mamet sent a draft of this play to Pinter, Pinter, who had never met Mamet, immediately sent back a reply that read (and I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t change a word, I’m sending it to the producers.” But when a production decides that these characters will no longer take their (again, hollow) machismo seriously, and play off their lines as though they were in the Saturday morning version of GLENGARRY, their emotional two-worders never land. Thus, the ending, where Levine must (spoiler alert, again, though if you’re still reading after the first one…) have his Come-to-Jesus moment and confess to his crime, is void of any emotion and the audience simply doesn’t care that a once-great old man has essentially committed his version of suicide on stage.
So why embrace the caricature? Well, this is Broadway, and Broadway ticket sales’ key demographic is tourists. And, when so much of a show’s Return on Investment comes from a group that may not be entirely proficient in the English language, you need to craft a show that will ensure they have a good time, too. They, the production, already had the names: Al Pacino, Richard Schiff (though I don’t know how popular The West Wing was in Minsk…), John C. McGinley, Bobby Cannavale… Now it’s up to the director to ensure these actors offer not just lines, but body language, that every paying customer can get. What’s something we can all get? Cartoons. Hence, Broadway becomes (and is) not a place where any real theatre is born (with the exception, I have to add, recently, of the short-lived Theresa Rebeck piece SEMINAR), but where theatre *appears.*
What’s more: audiences should find this offensive. They should find it as offensive as an advertisement that claims to know exactly what inspires everyone, or bad genre fiction that spouts jargon without ever making an attempt to explain the concepts behind the language (you’ve heard it in bad sci-fi, plenty – usually in the names of tools like the “quantum” somethingorother or the “flux” thisorthat, with no time paid to what those words actually mean). It should be offensive because it feeds audiences the appearance (there’s that word again…) of emotion, or over-emotion, and essentially asks that they “just trust” that there’s some real feeling in there somewhere – even though that isn’t evidenced by anything. Much in the same way [insert science fiction B-movie] calls that spoon-hot-glued-to-a-trashcan-lid a “quantum capacitor” and demands that you, the viewer, simply understand that there’s science there (science that you’re not worth being considered smart enough to understand), this GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS production needs its audience to see a pelvic thrust and just sort of take its word that that means something emotional. Or just remember the movie.
This is surely the largest problem with this new production, but it isn’t the only one. The first act of the play features a full blackout (curtain down) after each scene. The set doesn’t change (it’s all in the same Chinese food restaurant), only actors go in and out. As the curtain is down, fortune cookie messages and business maxims are projected onto its darkened velvet, in an obvious attempt on Sullivan’s behalf to say to the audience, “Hey guys, we know we’re lowering the curtain here and taking a full blackout for absolutely no reason but – LOOK! PROJECTION!” The second act, though, tosses out this practice and goes for the act-long curtain-up tactic, which works, but makes one feel like this is an entirely separate play from the one of the first act. I think this was probably utilized to make the first act a little longer – it is quite short, as-is. But the solution is all wrong. You don’t need to lengthen the first act, you need to cut the intermission. Of course, getting a Broadway theatre to cut an intermission would be like getting Liberace to cut the sequins – cut intermission, and when will the audience buy their ten-dollar bags of M&Ms? Mamet’s more recent play, NOVEMBER, had the same intermission problem, and the last thing you want to do is remind audiences of NOVEMBER. Do you remember NOVEMBER? Yeah. Neither does anybody. I can deal with not stretching my legs for 80 minutes, Broadway, believe it or not, I can.
Another possible play-lengthening method employed by Sullivan, here, might be having the actors perform their lines as though they had just taken some sort of sedative. The stereotype of Mamet’s language is true: it’s like watching two expert players play ping pong. Rapidity is everything. In Sullivan’s production, the audience gets the opposite: no urgency, and phony acting. The result is spending two hours with Al Pacino as he winks his way through a play, all the while going, “Yeah, but you know I’m Al Pacino, right? I mean, acting is just my day job.”
Yes the script endures all of this, because the script will always endure. But with Broadway being ridiculously pricey, just read the seven-dollar script. Save up for when an all-female company does the play again (this happened at least once, and raises all sorts of interesting and meaningful questions). Save for when the play is put on by a whoop of baboons (this hasn’t happened, to my knowledge, but, hey, they couldn’t do any worse…) Seeing this production will only remind you how much you hate the world, and the way it essentially gives you lip service through popular media, all the while assuring you not to worry, because someone else has already got the big stuff handled.