Glengarry Glen Ross
Credit: Marc Brenner

There has likely never been a stranger cultural climate in which to produce a revival of a play that seeks to humanize (and indict) real estate salesmen who are designed to epitomize the ruthless nature of capitalism and greed. And yet, here we are – with the first major revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in over a decade taking place at London’s Playhouse Theatre.

The play follows a group of ambitious real estate agents over the course of a dramatic two days in Chicago, plumbing themes of overwrought masculinity and a morally bankrupt pursuit of the American Dream. Christian Slater stars as Ricky Roma — a hotshot, fast-talking real estate agent — in a cast filled with British stage vets. Kris Marshall, best known to many as American-bound Brit Colin Frissell in Love Actually, adds a second “name” to the proceedings as John Williamson, a smarmy, yuppie of an office manager who doles out leads to the salesmen. Often, more seasoned theatre veterans can overshadow the big name talent in such productions, but Slater and Marshall easily dominate.

Slater, in a role made famous onscreen by Al Pacino, nails the seemingly impossible balance between Roma’s greedy, cutthroat business practices and his inherent likability that makes him a successful salesman in the first place. The ease with which he lets rip David Mamet’s signature conversational patter and soliloquies is an impressive high-wire act. He feels more at home in the rhythms of the dialogue than the rest of the cast (likely because he’s the only American in the group).

Once a teen heartthrob known for playing bad boys, Slater has channeled that edgy charm into far more dangerous roles as he’s matured – most notably, as the title character in USA’s Mr. Robot. Here, Slater capitalizes on his blend of sharp-edged magnetism and vulnerability – you root for him in spite of his ethically devoid sales tactics. Slater makes you see the flickers of Roma’s fragility beneath his virile embodiment of the American Dream – in his hands, Roma is dishonest, yes, but only because he’s clinging to what luck has brought his way.

Marshall is an ideal foil as the inherently weasel-like Williamson – all of the goofy charm that made Marshall a star is gone, superseded by an air of sleaze and deliberate spite. Where Slater’s Roma is the consummate salesman – able to make you grateful for the knife he’s grinding into your back – Marshall’s Williamson drips with barely concealed disdain for the men who work under him. He bristles with resentment for men who have mastered social niceties in a way he never will, lending Williamson a rodent-like air and a palpable rage that lurks just beneath the surface. Marshall has significantly less stage time (or at least dialogue) than others in the play, but he injects Williamson with such a feral disregard for others that his performance colors every moment.

Glengarry Glen Ross
Credit: Playhouse Theater London

As past-his-prime Shelley Levene, Stanley Townsend gets off to a bumpy start, but ends with a bang. He struggles initially with Mamet’s language, making bits of dialogue and interjected “you knows” sound overly scripted rather than a natural way of speaking. Once he hits his stride in the second act, Townsend breathes new life into the character with a natural joy and pugilistic energy. This brief return to glory and the accompanying twinkle in his eye makes the play’s final twist all the more gutting.

Structurally, Glengarry Glen Ross is a strange play – the first act is barely a half-hour, leading to an abrupt and lengthy intermission where we transition from a Chicago Chinese restaurant to a real estate office. Chiara Stephenson’s set design is extraordinarily lifelike. The stage is covered in realistic detail, but it does take an inordinately long amount of time to move from one space to the other, disrupting the flow and pacing of the action. Because time is of the essence in these men’s world and fast, double talk is how they make their living, it is a jarring, if unavoidable, interruption.

Mamet’s play won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its searing look at unhinged capitalism, alongside similar tracts as Wall Street and Gordon Gecko’s declaration that “greed is good.” While the play asks us to examine the lives of these complicated, immoral men, it does little to pass judgment on them. It paints a picture of their fallibility – the fragility beneath the chicanery – but it never pushes them beyond that point. At times, it even valorizes the men in their perverse quests for ill-gotten gains.

Often, Sam Yates’ production merely lacks the bite to make a firm statement, relying too heavily on moral gray areas to lend the events of the play any real weight. On a nearly daily basis, the world provides us with ample evidence of the consequences of treating capitalism as entertainment in the form of unchecked reality show competition. Given that, it feels increasingly less provocative for a play to merely point that out and end there. Undoubtedly, in 1984, Glengarry Glen Ross was a shocking and unflinching look at a world only just being defined – nowadays, it feels like a rather toothless depiction of business as usual. B