Glengarry Glen Ross

This quarter, Portland State University’s Theater Department is putting on a production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Lincoln Hall main stage.

This quarter, Portland State University’s Theater Department is putting on a production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Lincoln Hall main stage. Mamet is one of the most respected playwrights of our time. His dialogue is full of profanity and notoriously difficult to master. PSU students and staff are up to the task, however, bringing alive this tale of the cutthroat real-estate world, where rules are bent or even broken for a sale.

Glengarry Glen Ross tells the story of real estate agents participating in a sales contest in Chicago, circa 1983. Throughout the 1970s people have been encouraged to live opulently, but now the economy is in a serious recession, particularly in the Midwest. Agents who previously were top stars are now struggling just to put food on the table. Their agency is holding a sales contest and will give away a Cadillac to anyone who can sell over a certain amount. The lowest sellers, however, will be fired. Such is capitalism, especially in the ’80s.

Shelley Levine is an old-timer who has been on what he calls a “bad streak” for a while now, and is desperate for a good lead. Richard Roma is his young protégé and the only one on any kind of a good streak. Dave Moss is a disaffected agent who is not going to take it anymore, and is hatching a plan to move to a rival agency. George Aaronow is a nervy agent who is less cutthroat than the others. John Williamson “marshals the leads” for the agents as the office manager, but secretly despises them and their fast-talking ways.

Mid-way through the play, the office is robbed and all of the leads are taken. Detective Baylen shows up and questions each of the agents about the heist, suspecting that one of them is behind it. Shelley comes in with a large sale and takes no time rubbing it in, especially to office manager John. Roma has just sold a property that puts him over the benchmark to get the Cadillac. The name of the Florida property is Glengarry Glen Ross and he has sold it to the likeable dupe James Lingk.

The mystery of who robbed the office begins to take an unexpected turn just as Lingk shows up to tell Roma his wife has insisted he come back and cancel the deal. Roma is not about to let his Cadillac get away and pulls out all the tricks in this sleazy salesman’s book. Lingk is afraid of him, but more afraid of his wife. A series of events unfolds that scare Lingk away for good and reveal who broke in and stole the leads.

David Mamet plays are not mostly about the plot. They are, first and foremost, about the language each of the characters use and the way it defines them. Director Devon Allen categorizes Mamet among the “language-based playwrights” which she has directed before. His plays are well known for the colorful language of the characters, but it is not included just for shock value. Rather, it is the kind of language you would realistically expect to hear from people whose job is to bullshit others into buying property they don’t need or sometimes even want.

This production of Glengarry Glen Ross sticks firmly to Mamet’s play. The first act is set in a Chinese restaurant and the second in the office. The sets authentically replicate the period, as do the costumes and props. The actors disappear into their characters almost completely, with only a few interpretations of their own which for the most part enhance the characters. The intensely rhythmic language is handled with great skill and the movements of the actors keep our interest in a play that is mostly talking.

The film version of Glengarry Glen Ross starred such acting greats as Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris and Al Pacino. The students in this production give performances worthy of their well-known counterparts. Dennis Kelly brings kitsch to Shelley that helps to balance his character’s restrained desperation. Matt DiBiasio is particularly sleazy as Moss, which is a good thing. Alex Fuchs’ Roma is a deliciously charming asshole with a glimmer of a heart. And Rollie Walsh (Lingk) is a pleasure to watch as he shrinks in terror while the agents chase him around the office trying to get him from backing out of the deal.

The cast of this show practiced four hours a day, six days a week and the actors still got together outside of practice to work on the show. Their dedication is obvious as they deftly handle one of the wordiest and most difficult modern plays. Just as their characters will let nothing stop them in the pursuit of a real estate sale, these actors let nothing get in the way of a production worthy of Mamet’s writing.

There has been some controversy over Mamet’s hyper-realistic depiction of racism, sexism, and other politically incorrect topics. Some have taken him to task for this. Director and PSU Acting Professor Allen comments on this: “Art is supposed to portray things that are controversial, to prompt dialogue. In that way, all theater is political, without having to be activist.”

In an academic culture sometimes dominated by the “word police” it is refreshing to see such unvarnished characters and situations. That alone is worth the admission price.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs Nov. 8-11 and 14-17 on evenings at 7:30 PM except for the Sunday, Nov. 11 matinee at 2:00. Tonight is the low-cost preview and Wednesday Nov. 14 is a pay-what-you-can night if you bring two cans of food for the Oregon Food Bank or a cash donation. Otherwise tickets are $8.50 for seniors and students and $9.50 for everyone else.