The Playhouse Theatre seems to attract a big American star at least once a year; last year it was Matthew Perry in The End of Longing, and before that Lindsay Lohan offered herself up to considerable approbation in Speed-the Plough. This year it’s the turn of Christian Slater who takes on the lead role in the latest revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s brutal two-act story of property salesman in 80s America. There’s something about Mamet’s spare, macho style that never seems to go out of fashion, and following an excellent all-star revival of American Buffalo at the Wyndhams in 2015 with John Goodman and Damien Lewis, a return to Glengarry Glen Ross feels particularly timely.
As with American Buffalo, Mamet is examining multi-forms of masculinity in the ultra-competitive and extremely pressured office of property salesman, pitting a small group of men against each other each month in the attempt to earn big bonuses and gifts. There are clear comparisons with the equally cut-throat financial sector and watching Glengarry Glen Ross will trigger references to The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, as well as numerous other banking-sector exposés.
But in his relatively short play, what Mamet does so well is to show a world in flux, a period between a comfortable past and a more uncertain future which acts as either a threat or stimulus to the behaviour of the characters. To some degree, it pits old against new methods in the pursuit of signed contracts, while playing with concepts of lucky streaks, desperation to be given the best possible chance of success and fear of irrelevance in an industry based entirely on sales figures. At the heart of all this is not just finding the alpha-male, but how well colleagues form alliances and who they can really trust.
Act One is a swift introduction to the salesmen at a Chinese restaurant. First, old-hand Shelley begs the officious Office Manager John Williamson for more of the good ‘leads’ to reverse his fortunes and have a hope of making the sales board this month. Next, another two older colleagues discuss the opportunity to sell their knowledge to a rival firm, before finally we meet uber-salesman Ricky ‘Roper’ who demonstrates his easy skill in turning an unsuspecting neighbouring diner into a potential sale. As the curtain rises on Act Two, the office has been burgled and all the men are under suspicion. With their deals and their future hanging in the balance, greed and desperation overcome them.
Seeing this show in preview (so some of these issues may have since been addressed), Sam Yates’s production has made some rather unfortunate early choices which undermine what is a genuinely exciting and powerfully performed second Act. Starting at 7.45pm, Act One is comprised of three very short scenes which together last about 35 minutes, at which point there is an inexplicably long 30-minute interval, before resuming for the final 50 minutes. Having barely had a chance to invest in the characters or their story, it’s pretty ludicrous to give the audience a chance to detach again so soon and for so long, where a straight 90-minute run would suit the work much better and maintain the pace. This may not be helpful to the set-designer or the bar sales, but it would serve the play considerably better.
Similarly, each of the three mini-stories in Act One is separated by the closing of a curtain in which the audience just sits in silence for a minute or so waiting for it to restart – no music, no thought on how to link the scenes more effectively – which makes them very stilted and, again, constantly pulls the audience in and out of the action every few minutes, while the designer’s Chinese restaurant set is charmingly detailed, but lacks any kind of atmosphere; there are no other diners, not a single waiter or chef and not so much as muzak to add a bit of tonality. With such a fine cast, surely the production could afford to hire a few extras to people the background and make it look more like a real Chinese restaurant rather than the set of a Chinese restaurant.
Yet, once the production finally gets to Act Two, the show really begins to take flight, becoming an engaging and dramatic piece of theatre, in which Yates smoothly manages the various comings and goings that facilitate numerous duologues and revelations. It’s a nicely paced and claustrophobic second Act which slowly builds a sense of desperation among the office staff, pursued by an emotionless detective, while each salesman clings desperately to the deals he’s put together. And Yates’s direction ensures that the audience understands what is at stake for each character, giving them distinction as well as forming part of a more widely choreographed series of revelations for the office.
Still best-known as a 90s teenage heart-throb, Christian Slater channels just the right amount of star-quality into leading salesman Ricky Roma, a man so at ease with his own abilities that he can secure sales even when wearily eating in the local Chinese. Slater’s Roma also conveys a duplicitous credibility when selling “dreams” to his customers, appearing sincere to lure them into a contract, and while Act Two proves he can be equally slippery and deceptive to get what he wants, people are drawn to his success.
He has a certainty and sense of unfaltering untouchability that lends confidence to all his interactions with clients and colleagues, but you still see how carefully Roma must walk the line between success and failure, where one false move can ruin everything. Slater brings a real charisma to his scenes and, even in this incredibly talented cast, he more than holds his own, raising the energy-levels with each appearance and utilising his Hollywood appeal to just the right effect.
Stanley Townsend’s Shelley Levine is Roma’s exact opposite, a salesman so down on his luck he can’t close a door, and forced into increasingly desperate behaviour to keep afloat. The play opens with Levine trying to cut a deal with Kris Marshall’s charmless office manager to get better “leads” in return for a big percentage of any contracts he secures. Townsend skilfully grapples with ideas of someone clinging to an idea of the man he used to be, certain he can turn things around if he only had better options – an interesting and engaging mix of pride and failure. In Act Two the alliance he begins to form with Roma offers new possibilities, and for a moment Townsend shows us the salesman Levine could be again in a complex and emotive performance.
There are smaller but nicely shaded roles for Philip Glenister, Don Warrington, Kris Marshall and Daniel Ryan as the remaining office staff and customers. Glenister is a strong presence as Dave Morris, a frustrated employee desperate to leave whose actions set the story in motion, while Warrington’s George Aaronow is the unlikely and guilt-ridden colleague that Dave tries to form an alliance with. Managing them all is Marshall’s emotionless John Williamson, the non-salesman relishing his power to control the distribution of the much-demanded “leads” and forcing the respect of others rather than earning it. Daniel Ryan has a small but pivotal role as Roma’s nervous client unsuspectingly talked into a dream he cannot afford.
In its first West End outing for more than ten years, Mamet’s play feels as topical as ever, smart, sharp and full of dangerous predators fighting for air. With a superb cast led by an on-form Christian Slater, when the performance accelerates in Act Two it’s a pleasure to watch the intricacies of office politics collide with the varying levels of desperation in each of the personalities on display. With Press Night just a few days away, let’s hope the awkward production choices in Act One that affect the early part of the evening have been overcome, because this revival of Glengarry Glen Ross can still bite.
Glengarry Glenn Ross is at The Playhouse Theatre until 3 February and tickets start at £15, but do note the excessive fees if booking through ATG. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1