David Mamet-bashing is so rife right now in New York that it is reassuring to be reminded why he presents such a large target in the first place: his masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross. Even in an only reasonably involving production, such as the new Broadway revival starring Al Pacino, we are reminded that, whatever the state of the playwright’s recent fortunes – his latest play, The Anarchist, is being pulled from Broadway two months early after disastrous notices – his earlier work remains powerful enough to spawn envy.
Premiered on Broadway in 1984, when the author was 36, Glengarry gives us the ultimate illustration of Mamet-speak: overlapping dialogue, sheared sentences, liberal helpings of the f-word. In terms of plot, the drama furnishes a 30-minute first act, in which veteran salesman Shelly Levene, the Pacino character, begs John Williamson, a new manager in their real-estate firm portrayed by David Harbour, for better leads. Rising salesman Richard Roma, played in the 1992 movie version by Pacino and here given dangerous allure by Bobby Cannavale, works his wiles on a vulnerable client called James Lingk.
In the 50-minute second act, which takes place in the men’s office, a policeman is investigating a burglary of company property. Enter Levene, smug with the success of a big sale. In the central scene, he and Roma trade business philosophies until Lingk enters and Levene must play along with Roma’s attempt to sustain the client’s acquiescence.
If Pacino and Cannavale are like jazzmen trading riffs, it is the latter’s solos that took me deeper into the character. He is unfussy in his choices. When he laments that real men “are the members of a dying breed,” you hear echoes of everything from Neil LaBute to Mad Men not to mention Death of a Salesman.
Even though Mamet’s work is more cynical and less tragic than Miller’s, every first-rate production of Glengarry I’ve seen manages to make Levene’s downfall, when he mutters “My daughter,” devastating. Not so here. Pacino’s performance doesn’t achieve that level of washed-up grandeur. His work is not so much damagingly showy as riddled with technique. Each mannerism tends to be a little too studied. I still subscribe to the Spanish performer Javier Bardem’s dictum: “I do not believe in God; I believe in Al Pacino.” But his Shelly Levene does inject a smidgen of doubt.