It is easy to see 45th Street this week as the Tale of Two Mamets. David Mamet’s new play, “The Anarchist” is a verified flop, set to close two weeks after it opened. Meanwhile, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the second Broadway revival of Mamet’s profane look at a brutal Chicago real estate office, is a major commercial hit, with a top ticket price ($350), an average ticket price ($155) and percentage of seats sold (101%) beating out every other Broadway show (including “Wicked” and “The Lion King”) except for “The Book of Mormon.”
One can easily explain its commercial appeal in two words: Al Pacino. As my cousin Rose said before she saw the show, “Pacino could read the phone book and I’d be happy.” Personally, though, I count fully half of the remaining half-dozen cast members, especially Bobby Cannavale, as among my favorite performers or recent discoveries – actors whose presence (like Pacino’s) could be enough to convince me to see a show.
So it comes as a real surprise to be disappointed by a David Mamet play for the second time in a week.
Now, the level of disappointment differs greatly. “Glengarry Glen Ross,” first on Broadway in 1984, is considered one of Mamet’s best; the only one to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Read the text — just three brief duets in a Chinese restaurant, and then the second act in a run-down (and just-robbed) real estate office — and be dazzled by the playwright’s distinctive talent for arias of expletives and rat-tat-tat dialogue, as well as his showman’s penchant for clever (maybe too-clever) plot twists. It remains a potent glimpse into 1980’s greed and power dynamics. The salesmen feel it their professional obligation to lie, cheat and connive, yet loudly proclaim themselves victims; it is part of Mamet’s great skill that we view them that way as well.
But the production helmed by Daniel Sullivan falls short of the Tony-winning Broadway revival just seven years ago, directed by Joe Montello, that had audiences gasping. Audiences this time around are more likely to be yawning.
The major problem is Al Pacino’s performance; it is most generous to say that he is miscast. Pacino played the go-getting young salesman Ricky Roma in the 1992 movie version. In the new production, he plays the older washed-out salesman Shelly Levene, a role previously portrayed at one time or another by Jack Lemmon, Alan Alda and Robert Prosky.
Prosky, who was a familiar face on television (he was a regular on Hill Street Blues), originated the role. It is interesting to note that he received some of his best notices on stage for playing Willy Loman in an Arena production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of A Salesman.” Mamet’s play is a kind of updating of Miller’s, and no character is closer to Willy Loman in “Glengarry Glen Ross” than Shelly Levene – once so much at the top of his game that he was called The Machine Levene. But Shelly is now a character beaten down by his lost touch on the job and a suggestion of losses at home.
Pacino is not content to play beaten down; Pacino’s Shelly must be BEATEN DOWN! His mannered, powerhouse portrayal of a man going over-the-top crazy makes it difficult to feel Shelly’s underlying vulnerability and pathos (nothing seems underlying about him), and turns Shelly into the central character of the play.
This does a disservice to the rest of the cast, all of whom are splendid performers supposedly in an ensemble piece.
I am late to the altar of Bobby Cannavale, who plays the character that Al Pacino played in the film, the go-getter Ricky Roma. I only really started taking notice of him in his superb Tony-nominated performance in “The Motherfucker With The Hat” in 2011, and have since noticed him in guest-starring roles on quality TV as the officious hospital administrator in “Nurse Jackie,” the psychotic gangster in “Boardwalk Empire” and (looking at an old re-run) the unrecognizable effeminate bleached-blond inmate on “Oz.” He is rapidly becoming my new Jack Warden, an actor who seemed to elevate everything he was in. If any character should be the focus of audience attention, it is Cannavale’s Roma. He is arguably the most rounded character of the play, the only salesman who interacts in three different ways — low-key charisma/con with an actual customer/mark (the effective Jeremy Shamos, who played a similarly wishy-washy character in “Clybourne Park”); foulmouthed fury with the office manager (David Harbour); something approaching genuine respect and kindness with Shelly.
All the other characters function more or less as devices in Mamet’s machinery — for example, George is another beaten-down salesman (portrayed well by Richard Schiff, who was Toby Ziegler in “The West Wing”) who serves as Mamet’s red herring to upend audience expectation (I’ll say no more).
This is not to say the audience should see Mamet’s men as stick figures. A good production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” should be both a machine, chugging along at breathtaking pace, and a masterful sort of Japanese calligraphy, with each seemingly simple stroke revealing volumes about the characters and the world they inhabit. Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, this production’s pace seemed slowed down, and the strokes too fussy.
Cynics must surely suspect the motivation behind bringing a new “Glengarry Glen Ross” to Broadway so soon after the triumphant last one, and casting Pacino in the role of Shelly. Perhaps they wonder whether it is the same motivation that delayed the opening of “Glengarry Glen Ross” until it was nearly half-way through its run. Could this have been to avoid the possible barrier to ticket sales of unenthusiastic reviews? Is this the kind of maneuver that the characters in Mamet’s play might pull?
Tellingly, I asked my cousin Rose whether she liked the play better than if it had been the phone book. She said yes, but “at $157 a ticket, I felt a little cheated.” (!)
Glengarry Glen Ross
At the Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street
By David Mamet
Directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by Eugene Lee; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by James F. Ingalls., (212) Through Jan. 20.
Cast: Al Pacino (Shelly Levene), Bobby Cannavale (Richard Roma), David Harbour (John Williamson), Richard Schiff (George Aaronow), John C. McGinley (Dave Moss), Jeremy Shamos (James Lingk) and Murphy Guyer (Baylen).
Running time: two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” is scheduled to run through January 20.
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