Al Pacino on Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross. You Missed a Phenomenal Production!
Al Pacino is a consummate actor. In the Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross (David Mamet won the Pulitzer in 1984) insightfully directed by Daniel Sullivan, Pacino shines. His portrayal of Shelly Levine is truthful, vital and empathetic. He is backed up by a superb ensemble of actors, each a bulls-eye in his own right. Together, the cast adheres beautifully like a religious mosaic. They are powerfully felt, moment to moment, vibrant, subtly manipulative yet outrageous. They overwhelm. And when you step back at the play’s conclusion to see the work they have wrought together, the impact of the production’s meaning smashes you like lightening.
This setting may be the Regan era economic corporate construct of 1983, but the play reminds that this is the seminal period that got us to 2013. The hapless characters are snared in a vise of proving their economic worth and are forced to predate their hapless victims. Through their struggles, we see how more than ever, as citizens and social creatures we are compelled to deal with the horrific results of corporate fascism, greed, corruption, callousness. As the characters game each other with slippery ploys and psychological maneuverings, we know the score, that the winners today are the losers of tomorrow, that ambition and greed are infinite and infinitely destructive, and that they, like Sisyphus who must roll the boulder up the mountain knowing he will slip and fall to the same result every time, are born to failure in a culture that is unrelentingly wicked. Indeed, even corporations, like Sisyphus, are beset by the ever-increasing need for profitability, cost cutting and downsizing to eliminate their “dead weight, useless eaters.” The play is timely, Mamet was prescient and the production is faithful in spooling out how devouring corporations, represented by the callous actions of Mitch and Murray, wipe out true industry and humanity.
Having played Ricky Roma in the film, Pacino pulls off a miracle in his Shelly Levine, a character who was once like Roma but whose soul has become seared and savaged by the daily press of demeaning “employment” that offers no uplift nor ignites any spark of hope. Pacino portrays Shelly as a shabby shadow of once brimming confidence, now smarmy with the unseemly rot of connivance and calculation that is required to prey upon clients, cornering and badgering them into purchases, regardless of their wants and needs. His Shelly is tired, desperate, mentally fogged, tipping a precarious balance of initial fight and bluster and later waning energy and soul death.
In his scene where Shelly flickers back to life in a last harrah which we discover has been prompted by his sordid theft in a deal with Dave Moss, Pacino’s delight barreling into the office announcing he has made the windfall kindles our enthusiasm. His commanding Williamson to ” Get the chalk and put me on the board,” (in competition for the cadillac) convinces us that Shelly isn’t a hack after all, he is the selling machine he used to be. This counterpoint becomes all the more devastating when we and Shelly discover the sale is a deception and the deceiver, swindler and liar has been hoodwinked. When the revelation comes that the old couple who signed the check in the coup de grace deal are broke, Pacino slumps physically, demeaned and deflated once more in failure. Prayed upon by his delusions, the reality hits him and us with ferocity as John Williamson, played with precision by David Harbour, twists in the knife deeper for the kill. Williamson takes a particular relish and glee asking Shelly about the couple’s apparent poverty, “Didn’t you see the way they were living?” and then snapping out in triumph, “They just like to talk to salesmen.” Pacino allows us to feel the desolation creeping back into Shelly’s soul. In his performance he wrenches all the emotional heft out of himself and enervates us with the power of living this character as we, with Shelly, victimized by the corporate ethos, cultural apathy and our own delusions about “making it” face his inevitable doom of hopelessness.
As John Williamson, David Harbour makes the perfect foil to Pacino’s Shelly. He has taken the role far from Kevin Spacey’s interpretation in the film. Spacey brilliantly plays Williamson as droll, dry, milktoast. Harbour is perfection, the golden-haired, relative of someone at Mitch and Murray brought in to cut the dead wood and mechanize people and sales for profitability. Harbour’s Williamson is overtly cruel and aggressive, loud and brash. He smarms Pacino’s Shelly, showing that middle managers, too, can play the game, conniving, manipulating, calculating, tormenting. We note Williamson’s slow deadliness as he listens to Shelly’s pleas, appears to be yielding, then with enjoyment backpedals, rejecting Shelly’s demands. He refuses to give Shelley the premium leads an intention he had all along, but with double speak he blames the result on Shelly’s selling failures as the rationale of denying him. Through this scene beautifully portrayed by Harbour and Pacino, we see the malevolence and self-victimization and cruelty in their representative dance driven by a market economy.
The symbol of middle management, Harbour aptly forges his character’s knowledge of the divide between the two classes of workers, the managers and the slaves. Harbour’s Williamson carries the banner of his bosses and will never put it in the hands of the underlings. He portrays this knowledge, in his attitude, his carriage, showing his superiority with dominant confidence, regardless of the slaves’ resentment. His impeccable characterization as the perfect bastard is unforgettable, one you must grovel to, yet can manifest hatred to, up to the point when you remember he has the power to decide your fate. Harbour’s Williamson is inviolate and trenchant, recognizable as every corporate middle management position, the henchmen of henchmen.
The second foil to Pacino’s Shelly is John C. McKinley as George Moss. McKinley relates Moss’ fury with exceptional intelligence. His rage is layered and he shows that the closer Moss comes to fulfilling his plan of conniving a co-worker to steal for him, leaving the colleague holding the bag, the more irate he becomes. McKinley’s duplicitous Moss games his colleagues and Williamson with bluster and bravado that is empty and filled with complaint. McKinley subtly weaves together Moss’ arrogance, rage and shadiness which we only understand later, having been connived by his rants and apparently legitimate condemnations against Mitch and Murray. McGinley’s Moss is dominant alpha in believing that not only can he best Mitch and Murray at their own level of rapaciousness and cruelty, but he can use the company’s desperate slaves to effect his plan to sell the premium leads to create a profit for himself.
We especially see McGinley’s brilliance during his “Fuck You” tirade. In this scene McGinley allows Moss’s presumptuous arrogance to ignite beautifully barreling out a crescendo of “Fuck yous,” to the staff and Williamson with a ferocity that becomes humorous. We revel in the depiction. It is comical and identifiable, for we have been at that same place of having to swallow so much crap, “Fuck You” sums up our primal scream of frustration. We feel McGinley’s empathy with Moss’s rage at being cornered by Mitch and Murray, snared by his dreams of “becoming rich” and himself for believing the lie. It is felt experience and we know that behind the rage is the despair that things will never change, for we can do little but be beholden to bosses’ emp0loyment at will. Can we select the alternative, joblessness and utter failure?
McGinley enacts the scene to intimate Moss’ self-deception at too readily believing his delusional plan will work. Once again comes the lightening crash as we realize Moss’ rage is at himself, another failure gone amuck. His “Fuck Yous,” are in actuality, “I fucked me.” He has screwed himself and has brought everyone down with him, except his enemy Mitch and Murray. They will thrive, continuing to grind slaves to bits because the climate is a desperate one and there is no protection for non-union workers. Ultimately, Moss and Shelly will be put in jail for their dreams.
As Ricky Roma, Bobby Cannavale aptly steps up to the challenge of playing the character Pacino played in the film. His Roma is more direct, apparently honest and less slickly selling a fabulous concept to his mark. Cannavale’s Roma is portrayed with vibrancy and candor. We see that he doesn’t understand the desperation of Shelly, Moss and George Aaronow, played excellently as a counterpoint by Richard Schiff. Unlike Shelly and the others, he is the alpha, the star performer, on the top of the heap. We enjoy watching him finesse his prey, James (played by Jeremy Shamos) and are unnerved when Williamson blows the deal for him.
Cannavale’s portrayal brilliantly makes us want Roma to succeed, though it is counter to our sense of the Golden Rule and human decency. With his clever, likable depiction we admire Roma, his talents, his charm. We enjoy seeing him at work, forgetting the sale is a con until it fails and Shamos’ James leaves in fear. That reality crash snaps Cannavale’s Roma and it awakens us. The charm flees like James and Roma turns on Williamson. It is then Cannavale’s portrayal shows that behind Roma’s superb salesmanship is the same desperation and fear that have overtaken Shelly, Moss and Aaronow.
Though Roma is a winner today, he knows the future is bleak. Underneath the dominance is a painful understanding; he is out there on his own and the company he works for puts obstacles in his path and is incapable of providing the proper resources for him to effect his talents. It is only a matter of time before the premium leads will be given to a new top seller on the board. Cannavale intimates this understanding when Roma draws in Pacino’s Shelly and compliments him for his creative “crap slinging” on James. We are allowed to empathize with Cannavale’s Roma, after all, for like the others, has duped himself. The future is now. Little does he realize the game is up for all of them. With the leads gone, Roma will be joining his pals selling old leads that can’t be sold, as two of his colleagues, the one he planned to work, end up in jail.
As the low key salesperson, Richard Schiff’s George is us. He listens to Dave, Shelly and Ricky with tired sensitivity, with every step of the way relating to fruitlessness of the struggle of each man. Yet he is the solid presence that tries and loses, not with grace, but with quiet resignation. Schiff’s George is exceptional. And his counterpoint characterization enhances the complexity of the dynamic in the struggle each character has with his own delusions of which George gracefully seems to be absent of. He has gotten to the bare reality and he puts up with it all until he, too, has to cry out with frustration. A superb performance, Schiff listens, is always present. Wonderful.
Mamet saw what many recognized yet tossed aside in their quest for the riches during the Regan era of corporate growth and shrinking unions and voiding worker’s rights. The productive, aggressive ones, the middle management henchmen and those like uber confident Ricky Roma would one day be on the refuse heap. Why? Even in the market, and with hedge funds, past performance guarantees nothing. Mamet’s work and this production are timeless and reveal that our cultural dynamic needs to change. Corporations must not be the feudal lords. We must not allow them power by handing over our imagination, creativity, personalities and dreams to them because we have swallowed the lie that survival is steeped in economic despair. We are more than “survivalists” and this is not a reality program, it a paradigm that we can end if we choose to. Sullivan’s and the casts’ production show that what people accept, they have. The lies and delusions they allow, ensnare them. It is a powerful message for all time. If you missed the production see the film and read this review again. You shouldn’t miss it a second time.