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Stereotype or Truth? : Business Insiders Review Harsh 'Glengarry Glen Ross'

November 22, 1987|HERMAN WONG

The American salesman as a driving, deceitful, heartless creature has probably never been portrayed more vividly--and with more profanity--than in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Now playing at the South Coast Repertory Theatre Mainstage in Costa Mesa, the play gives us life at the nadir of the American Dream. Mamet's real-estate hucksters are a tragic lot: born losers in a shark-infested, cutthroat world preying on gullible customers and turning on each other with four-letter vitriol.

Critics have praised the 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play as a microcosm of the ills of America's business world. They've seen Mamet's pitchmen as victims of the success ethic, an embittered and foundering claque from the corporate underside--but whose behavior and outlook are actually much the same as those of businessmen at the top.

Are they, though? To get some life-at-the-top reactions, The Times asked five business leaders in the county to comment on the play. Each has been a strong supporter of South Coast Repertory. When the theater presented something that so thoroughly attacks the world in which they operate, how did they react?

THE PEOPLE CONSULTED

--Barbara Aune, a former member of SCR's building-fund committee and a real-estate consultant.

--Kae Ewing, a former SCR board president and a financial-consultant executive.

--James Vandeberg, a SCR board vice president and a corporate lawyer.

--Harriette Witmer, a former head of SCR's building-fund committee and a chemical company executive.

--Stewart Woodard, a former SCR board president and the architect who designed SCR's Costa Mesa complex.

ON THE CHARACTERS AS REPRESENTATIVES OF BUSINESS

Ewing: I remember these boiler-room offices, these old-styled salesmen. All of us have known a few of them--you know, the kind that would sell you real estate in the desert. It's their drive to score, to win that commission, and not caring who or what happens to the other guy. . . . But it's kind of sad; there's a lot of desperation, a lot of Willy Loman, especially the older guys.

But (Mamet's salesmen) aren't representative of the whole. In this case, we're talking about the dregs of that particular field--the bottom layer.

Aune: It's about a seamier side of real estate, but a seamier side that could exist in any field. . . . But I haven't run across people like that. The (real estate) people I know would rather die than trample on people's lives and rights the way these salesmen (in the play) do. . . . OK, you hear of the blue-suede-shoe types in this business. But that's a tired stereotype; in my office, I've got a Stanford grad sitting behind me.

Witmer: (Mamet's) salesmen may exist, but that would be only in a particular situation. His salesmen are down and out, and hanging by their fingernails. The (sales) people I know become friends of their customers; they take the time to nurture them. The customers come back because these people are hand-holders, not hustlers.

Woodard: (Unethical practices) is an aspect of life that's a reality, something that can't be put aside. . . . But the ("Glengarry") type is a fringe group, a fringe you'd find in any field, in or out of business.

Vandeberg: It's hard to identify with (Mamet's characters). Yes, they represent a certain people that do exist, to some extent, in business. . . . But I don't think it's fair to say this represents all business.

Aune: In my (real estate) work, there are known to be some who are not to be trusted. But these constitute, really, a small minority.

ON "THE SOCIETAL GOOD"

Vandeberg: Today it isn't just that drive to succeed, that win-win attitude. It's a more balanced existence: your job, yes, but also your family and your community. But there's none of this in "Glengarry."

Ewing: Look at what's happening (among businessmen) just in Orange County. Look at the support given SCR, the (Orange County Performing Arts Center) and the other cultural organizations here. Tell me that isn't social obligation. Tell me that isn't giving something back to the community.

ON THE PLAY ITSELF

Aune: It's pretty hard on (real estate people), but I'm glad I saw it. It's better than seeing "Oklahoma!" for the umpteenth time, right?

ON THE PLAY'S LANGUAGE

Woodard: In (SCR's) earlier days, if we had language like this, 20% of the audience would have walked out, believe me. . . . Performers used to get jailed for using four-letter words like these--now they get Oscars and Pulitzers for it.

Ewing: I never did like it on stage. But with this play, it's awfully hard to divorce the four-letter language from the characters. That is the way they talk, the way they communicate. I realize the shock value of it, too, from the dramatic standpoint.

Witmer: It's not that offensive to me. You hear the same thing on the streets.

Maybe, though, it's a little excessive.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet continues on the South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Drive , Costa Mesa, through Dec. 3. Performances today: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $12 to $25. Information: (714) 957-4033.

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