The Rep's fine 'Glengarry' rumbles past like a dirty L train

David Mamet's dark little parable of naked Midwestern capitalism gets a powerful production from a cast that is both pitiable and pitiless.
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Mamet at the Rep: shady magniloquence and ugly desparation.

David Mamet's dark little parable of naked Midwestern capitalism gets a powerful production from a cast that is both pitiable and pitiless.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre has opened a fast-paced, finely styled new production of David Mamet'ꀙs play, Glengarry Glen Ross, on stage through February 28 and well worth a viewing. Based on Mamet'ꀙs experience as the office manager for a real estate office on Chicago'ꀙs North Side, the show tells the story of a mangy pack of amoral salesmen pitching swampland to the rubes. It'ꀙs a dark little parable, devoid of compassion, which flashes past us rumbling and dirty like an L train. The Rep'ꀙs production delivers just enough broad comedy to leave us feeling more pleasure than pain, but without softening the grimness of the tale.

Mamet'ꀙs plays and screenplays — American Buffalo, Oleanna, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Wag the Dog — have made him a fixture of American film and theatre for 35 years. But in the early '80s his fame was still tenuous. After a cold reception for Edmond, his previous play, Mamet sent the newly-written script of Glengarry to Harold Pinter for polish and guidance. Pinter deemed it production-ready and recommended it to London'ꀙs National Theatre, where it premiered. The following year, after opening at Chicago'ꀙs Goodman, it soon moved to Broadway, ran for 11 months, and won the playwright a Pulitzer Prize.

'ꀜFor me the real division between a serious writer and an unserious one is whether they're willing to cut,'ꀝ said Mamet in a 1998 interview. One of his most effective cutting techniques is to write characters and settings into the dialogue, but then keep them offstage. This way the play stays spare and claustrophobic while evoking a larger world that the onstage characters aspire to, resent, or fear. Glengarry'ꀙs cast is rounded out by two such characters: Mitch and Murray, the invisible owners or managers of the office. Like others of Mamet'ꀙs shadow characters they take on mythic properties, a kind of doubled anti-Godot.

Directors, too, need to be serious about cutting. Happily Wilson Milam, who staged The Seafarer at the Rep last season, deftly trims the dead space that drags down too many stage productions. He has also cut away even the slightest hint of glamour from the Glengarry characters. In the film version, Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino (though despicable) preserved a faint roguish air, a touch of Wall Street'ꀙs Gordon Gekko. Milam'ꀙs magnificently shabby seven, on the other hand, are all as pitiable as pitiless: corpulent, balding, badly dressed, socially stunted, emotionally barren.

The cast is strong. Charles Leggett paints a portrait of a desperate Midwesterner in the style of the Coen brothers, bringing discredit on Wisconsin'ꀙs wholesome cheesehead image with his bold, broad characterization of Dave Moss; he provides an interesting contrast to Ed Harris'ꀙ pent-up portrayal of the same character in the film version. R. Hamilton Wright delivers Ricky Roma'ꀙs shady magniloquence with a faint odor of fatigue and anxiety. John Aylward shows an unflinchingly ugly desperation. The sets by Eugene Lee are extremely well crafted without overpowering the story.

The production stumbles occasionally. File boxes are distressingly fresh and under-filled; there'ꀙs too much shouting in the second half, with not enough tonal variation as the actors work to maintain the brisk tempo. But a few false notes notwithstanding, this is a strong revival with a familiar refrain: naked capitalism ain'ꀙt a pretty sight.


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