Melissa Blease reviews Glengarry Glen Ross starring Nigel Harman and Mark Benton, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 23 March
Greed, money, power, money, success, money, failure, money, audacity, money, vanity, money… on and on and on goes the ceaseless, perpetual mantra that drives Chicago realtors (estate agents to you and me) Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levine, Ricky Roma, George Aaronow and Dave Moss onwards and upwards, bonding them together and eventually driving them apart.
David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play – written in 1984 and adapted into a film version in 1992 – is a beautifully nostalgic time capsule that captures the intense nature of the relentlessly ferocious world of the four main characters. Subtler in narrative than Wall Street, less complicated than The Bonfire of the Vanities (both of which offered their own takes on 80s business power dynamics three years later) and often seen as an updated – and more profanity-laden – version of Death of a Salesman (the original cast often referred to the play as Death of a F*****g Salesman), Glengarry Glen Ross is a slow-burn attention-grabber; it takes a while to relate to Shelly, Ricky, George and Dave and, by the time you’ve sorta got under their skin, you really sorta don’t like them much… which is, I guess, sorta the point.
Nigel Harman is suitably slick as smooth, slightly sinister, slightly seedy super-salesman Roma: menacing, aggressive and always, always anxious. Mark Benton as Levene is perplexed, profound panic personified, Wil Johnson seethes with low self-esteem as Aaronow, and Denis Conway is a pernicious, envious, slippery Moss – it’s easy to believe that none of them wouldn’t consider using bribes, intimidation, lies or other illegal and unethical acts to close that all-important deal; when the prize for top salesman is a Cadillac, nobody’s going to be happy with the runner-up’s toaster.
And so it comes to pass that two of our grubby gang of four set up a robbery in the office (cue second half scene change from rundown Chinese restaurant to rundown real estate office, so precise in detail that one can almost smell the fading testosterone hanging in the air alongside the cigarette smoke)… and the dreams of selling the two real estate developments that give the play its title fade faster than Moss’s smug smile.
While a drama that was originally acclaimed as a report from the frontline of cut-throat capitalism (which, back when it first premiered, was cutting-edge territory) hasn’t quite passed its sell-by date, it’s all too easy to make lazy comparisons to the brazen, balls-out US version of The Apprentice during the Trump years and read it as a comedy. But that’s now, and Glengarry Glen Ross was then – and ultimately, Mamet’s tight, constantly accelerating script, ricocheting along at a breakneck speed from start to finish, is what really closes the deal here.
Main image: Mark Benton as Shelley Levene and Nigel Harman as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. Credit: Marc Brenner