Peter Maloney, Manu Narayan, Johnny Wu and Ray Anthony Thomas in "Glengarry… (Craig Schwartz )
As long as America is America, land of opportunity as well as desperate opportunism, David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" will have a special place in our repertory.
The drama, now in a crackling production at La Jolla Playhouse directed by artistic director Christopher Ashley, can be seen as a reworking of Arthur Miller's "Death of Salesman," with Willy Loman's sad-sack tale transformed into a kind of revenge story. The forces rallying against the little guy are as formidable as ever, but Mamet gives his team of salesmen working out of a dicey storefront real estate operation the same blood-coveting ferocity of a school of sharks.
Language is the weapon of these hustlers, and the play is hijacked by the two characters who wield it with a license to dismember if not kill, Shelly Levene and Richard Roma. If they're not snowing you, these guys are probably flaying you with some jagged shards of profanity.
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The success of Ashley's tight and tense production owes a good deal to the actors in these roles, Peter Maloney as down-and-out Shelly Levene determined to regain his office mojo, and Manu Narayan as Richard Roma, the slick, unscrupulous king of the conspicuously placed sales leader board, which never lets anyone forget who's on top.
Maloney, an experienced Mamet hand, is especially memorable. Wandering about the stage with the baloney-like pallor of a man boiling over with rage and frustration, he turns Levene into a Beckettian figure — a garrulous muddler caught in an existential loop, where money is metaphysical meaning and just as elusive to come by.
The first half of the play is set in a Chinese restaurant, which is conjured with kitschy authenticity by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, who does an equally bang-up job with the second act office setup. Levene, sitting in a booth with the cocky, jargon-spouting office manager John Williamson (Johnny Wu), is pleading for a crack at the "premium leads," a contact list of chumps for their dubious real estate offerings.
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Like an old pitcher convinced that he can still throw heat despite a losing record and swelling ERA, Shelly trumpets his sales triumphs from the past. By turns angry and pathetic, he can't believe he has to grovel before this expensively dressed, business-school nitwit, who yammers about "policy" and having to "marshal the leads."
"That's 'talk,' my friend, that's 'talk,'" Levene says derisively. "I'm the man to sell."
Closing deals is clearly a high-testosterone activity. When Roma puts the moves on a prospective buyer, it's as though he's making love to them. Narayan has the character strut around like a foul-mouthed Casanova. It's an attention-grabbing performance — any minute you half-expect this Roma to break out some "Saturday Night Fever" dance moves — and it adds to the velocity of Ashley's thrillingly paced production.
The multicultural cast boldly clarifies that the play isn't just about middle-age white men, though the characterizations haven't all settled. For George Aaronow, the salesman embodiment of a working stiff, Ray Anthony Thomas retreats behind a dithering meekness that sometimes comes off as actor indecision rather than interpretation.
Wu, however, finds the right toxic blend of arrogance and inexperience for Williamson. And as David Moss, the salesman who introduces the idea of stealing the leads (an inside job that gets dramatically untangled in the second act), James Sutorius presents us with a low-end version of all those ethically obtuse Wall Street types who threw the country into a ditch for their own enrichment.
As I said, "Glengarry" will never be out of season. The play, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is also being revived on Broadway this fall, with Al Pacino (a sinisterly flashy Roma in the 1992 film version) taking on the role of Levene. But the drama's irresistibility has as much to do with style as with subject matter.
This lean, mean theatrical machine finds the jazzy poetry in invective. Character emerges through the rhythm of speech — the clashing, competitive nature of these salesmen expressing itself in the staccato spray of dialogue. Loaded with intrigue but refreshingly light on plot, the play doesn't settle for simply conveying its critique of dog-eat-dog capitalism. It enacts it with a lusty admiration for all those corroded souls on the front lines.
Above all, "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a gift to actors. The play has long been a magnet for big-name stars, but as Maloney and Narayan demonstrate in this muscular La Jolla Playhouse production, all that's needed are grit, daring and a knack for lyrical cursing.
'Glengarry Glen Ross'
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 21.
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes