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|November 6-12, 2008
Coffee is for closers
Mike Hartman and the DCTC take on Mamet
by Gary Zeidner
David Mamet is one of America’s most well-known and prolific writers. Between plays like American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow and Boston Marriage (this last which the Denver Center Theatre Company put on to much success a few years back) and movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Wag the Dog and Redbelt, Mamet has produced uniquely identifiable and memorable work since the early 1970s.
A Mamet play (and, somewhat less so, a Mamet movie) is a verbal jackhammer. It’s densely marbled pound cake, not an airy Communion wafer. It’s a limnic shovel to the head, a tautological assault. Mamet’s cadence, as much as his often-vulgar words, rushes the audience down rhetorical rapids. Informed by his own experiences — as a student of jiu-jitsu for Redbelt or as a real estate salesman for Glengarry Glen Ross — a Mamet play walks into the room, lights a smoke, tells its story and walks out again with no apologies.
For many people, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross is one of Mamet’s most recognizable works. The 1992 film version showcases an all-star cast including Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce and Alec Baldwin (in one of the best cameos of all time that is, regrettably, absent from the stage version). The film, like the play upon which it is based, is a fast-paced, hard look at the cruel, grimy world of high-pressure real estate sales.
For the most part, Mamet only writes two types of characters. The first are the young up-and-comers. These men, whether good or evil, face life with hope and expectation; they are on the front end of their existence. The second type of Mamet man is on the other side of mid-life. He looks back more than forward, and again, whether sinner or saint, he grapples with his past and his uncertain future.
Glengarry Glen Ross, set in mid-1980s Chicago, is populated by both Mamet archetypes. Richard Roma (Ian Merrill Peakes) is the young gun leader on the sales board. He’s a wheeler-dealer, all sharp suit and slick-backed hair, who will do anything to close a deal. If we could see Roma after 20 years in the feast or famine sales game, he’d probably look a lot like Shelly Levene (Mike Hartman). Once known as “The Machine” for his sales prowess, Shelly opens the play a desperate man barely clinging to the only livelihood he knows.
Shelly’s not the only one upset by the perceived lack of opportunity at their real estate firm. Times have gotten so tight that the new office manager, John Williamson (Spacey in the movie, Vince Nappo here), has instituted a Draconian sales contest for the month. First prize is a brand new Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is… you’re fired. With only four salesmen in the office, the pressure to perform is unbearable, and that pressure leads someone to break into the office and steal the coveted Glengarry leads in order to sell them to a rival firm.
Who stole the leads and whether they will get caught would naturally be the foci of Glengarry Glen Ross were it written by a lesser auteur. In Mamet’s hands, however, those matters remain tangential. Instead, Mamet gives the men themselves, the characters and how they communicate, the center ring. Watching and listening to them cajole and curse, berate and backstab is the pleasure of the play.
Mike Hartman blew me away as Shelly Levene. I honestly think I enjoyed his performance more than Lemmon’s in the film. I could write an entire essay on all the things he does right in this role, but I’ll mention just one subtle one. In the opening scene, Shelly is trying any way he can to get some hotter leads from Williamson over dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. During the scene, one of Hartman’s socks has fallen down, and the aging skin between the top of his sock and the bottom of his pant leg — a gaffe the younger Shelly would never have made in a sales world where appearance is everything — paints the perfect picture of a salesman for whom the walls are closing in. I’m sure that Hartman consciously made, or at least assented to, that costuming choice, and it is only one minor example of what a bravura performance he delivers.
With superb costuming and set design along with a solid ensemble performance, the DCTC’s Glengarry Glen Ross is a worthy dose of undiluted Mamet.
On the Bill:
Glengarry Glen Ross plays through Nov. 22nd at the Denver Center, 14th and Curtis Streets, Denver, 303-893-4100, visit www.denvercenter.org.
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