"Shut up and listen." "I want to tell you something." "Listen to me!" These phrases, and countless variations thereof, are a recurring mantra in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, now running through March 2 at San Jose Stage Company. Okay: The f-bomb is dropped with far greater frequency throughout the 1984 two-act play, but it is this insistence to be heard, this demand to have one's say, that characterizes this pitiless look into the heartless souls of real men doing a real man's job, which, in this case, is selling bogus real-estate investment opportunities to a world full of suckers and fools.
The drama, which also has more than a few flat-out hilarious moments, opens in a Chinese restaurant, which at San Jose Stage is cleverly created from a single black-and-red paneled wall, a pair of lanterns, and a round table covered in a restaurant-red tablecloth, upon which sit two fortune cookies. In the first of three two-person vignettes, we meet the once great salesman Shelley (the Machine) Levine, masterfully played by Stephen Klum, and John Williamson, whose icy demeanor is brought to chilling life by Michael C. Storm. Levine is cold, too: he hasn't closed a deal in months. But he is still a salesman, so he uses all his considerable powers of bullshit to pry a few good leads from office-manager-drone Williamson's uncaring claws. Good leads are the lifeblood of salesmen like Levine. They are the difference between pitching one's wares to a qualified buyer or a deadbeat, who, for Mamet's chummy cadre of racists, usually means someone with a last name like Patel.
Right away we get a taste for Levine's salesman's schtick. Confronted by Williamson with the facts of his poor performance, Levine deflects and changes the focus, trying in vain to turn the conversation back to his glory days as top dog. "Don't look at the board," where failure is conspicuous by his name's absence, he begs Williamson, "Look at me." Like any good salesman's line, this one is based on a noble ideal: shouldn't people be more valuable to an organization than mere money? Nice sentiment, but Levine is no socialist, and he'd say just about anything to get what he needs. At one point he even offers to pay Williamson for the leads, even though he knows he doesn't have enough money in his pocket to cough up his share of the lunch bill.
The scene between Levine and Williamson offers the audience an introductory taste of that patented, stutter-step, mannered-interruption that is sometimes known as Mametspeak. The next pair of actors deliver even more. Dave Moss, played with guilty-pleasure coarseness by Michael Ray Wisely, is feeling out George Aaronow, who, in Colin Thomson's expressive hands is a nervous Freddo Corleone. Moss is sick to death of Williamson and the masters who hold his leash, so he's hatched a plan to strike at the heart of the company, and Aaronow is just the man to help him carry it out. As the two actors stop and start their lines, whose rhythms are carved into stone by the notoriously controlling Mamet, you can almost hear the audience hold its collective breath. More than the blizzard of f-bombs, this is what they have come to Glengarry Glen Ross for, to see how well the actors will handle Mamet's deliberately stilted and choppy dialogue.
Ross and Thomson handle their contrived pauses beautifully, but I find this little game that Mamet has perpetuated to be tiresome in the extreme. The reverence that the actors, and thus the audience, are obliged to show for the playwright's sacred text distracts from the characters that Mamet has drawn for us. These are rich, complicated, contradictory individuals. Why would I want to leave them behind, even momentarily, to pay homage at the altar of Mamet? The net effect is that Mamet's creations drop out of character, however subtly, to become actors, albeit supremely capable ones, on a stage reading lines in a play. For the life of me I don't understand why an artist would prefer his audience to look at the frame around his picture rather than the content of the picture itself, but maybe I don't fully appreciate the benefits of branding one's aesthetic. "Listen to me," Mamet seems to be demanding of his audience. Sorry, pal, I'd rather get lost in your characters. Don't take this the wrong way, but they are a hell of a lot more interesting than you or your adorably earnest pile of art.
By the time the third pair of actors take their turn at the restaurant's table, we are ready to see one of these guys in action on a real live mark. Until this point in the play, the sales jobs we've witnessed have been between the salesmen, whose familiarity with the form proves a formidable defense. Enter James Lingk. Rendered with affection and nuance by Kevin Kennedy, he's no match for Richard Roma, played with peacock-like bluster and bravado by Randall King. Roma is a philosopher shyster, a veritable Heidegger of hustle. Lingk doesn't have a chance.
Neither do we as the lights come up on the second act, which takes place entirely within the offices of these real-estate hucksters. The scenes between Levine and Roma are some of the best between two actors that you could ever hope to see; Klum's and King's performances of these touchstones are a joy to watch. I won't tell you what happens, in case you are not fully familiar with the story. Suffice it to say that act two contains some of the funniest, most inflammatory dialogue your eardrums will ever have the pleasure of receiving, and the entire cast rises to the heady occasion (of the many withering put downs, Roma's "Let me buy you a pack of gum and show you how to chew it" is one of the few that I can actually reproduce here).
Beyond the displays of shear wit and wordplay, our deeply flawed heroes never forsake their salesmanship skills. "I don't understand," Roma says in response to a perfectly understandable statement. "What does that mean?" he asks a few beats later, even though he and everyone in the theater knows exactly what "that" means. This is the meat of Glengarry Glen Ross, a world in which language is a weapon to be wielded until your foe yields, or wilts, as Levine puts it. I surrender and you should, too: Go and see this eff'ing play!
Glengarry Glen Ross continues at San Jose Stage Company through March 2, 2008. 490 South First Street, San Jose; (408) 283-7142. For tickets and information, visit sanjosestage.com.