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London Theatre Reviews

Jonathan Pryce/ Ph: Johan Persson


By Matt Wolf

(Please bear with us while we sort out formatting problems that for the moment are causing an excess of italics)

Just a play about some Chicago real estate salesmen trying to stay alive. But, in playwright David Mamet's hands, Glengarry Glen Ross is a brilliant bit of urban office poetry

For a play as mellifluously titled as Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's amalgam of G's, L's, and R's, a study in lyricism all its own, there's scant denying the ruthless landscape inhabited by seven men who themselves speak an expletive-laden patois that constitutes its own kind of urban office poetry. It's that contrast between the vicious and the highly evocative, what one might think of as the beautiful vs. the profane, that animates a play I love more every time I see it, and to which I owe a very decided and particular debt: Bill Bryden's world premiere production of the play, at the National's Cottesloe in Sept., 1983, was one of the first shows I saw upon moving to London, and it's no exaggeration to say that 24 years later, it remains as a piece of composition one of the very best.

Whether James Macdonald's new London revival of the play - the first time, incidentally, that a short but demanding script has been seen within a commercial context here - always honors the text may be a moot point to those new to Glengarry: In structural terms alone, the script is a wonder in its shift from three terse duologues in the first act to a sustained essay in storm-tossed office politics in the second. There's not an ounce of fat to Mamet's chronicle of some Chicago real estate salesmen's struggle to keep afloat in much the same unforgiving environment written of by Odets and Miller in their day and by not many dramatists since. (Tony Kushner is among the few of the post-Mamet generation to make a feature of money in shows like Caroline, or Change.) British commentators inevitably view the play as a dissection of capitalism at its most rapacious, not that any of Mamet's characters would dare indulge in isms. Instead, they're merely clinging for survival by grasping at leads the way they grab hold of language: not even Harold Pinter, who was largely responsible for berthing this play at the National in the first place, has ever made quite such a distinction between the laws of speaking, talking, and saying as Mamet cunningly and coolly does here.

The point, of course, is that these men are mostly poets: exemplars of a certain, very specific vernacular that nowadays tends not to shock as much as it does delight via cadences that only Mamet could achieve out of the fiercest four letter words. And if my initial reaction to Macdonald's production is that his cast is still feeling its way into a collective harmony that speaks to the very real music here found in mankind at its most anxious, one could counter with the argument that the show was somewhat thrown off course by the last minute substitution of actor Peter McDonald as Williamson, the implacable office manager who shares the very first scene. Except that McDonald gives in some ways the most satisfyingly complete performance in a company that forces a slight readjustment of the defining roles of Shelly the machine Levene and the office's preeminent showman, Richard Roma

It's not just that Jonathan Pryce, an alumnus of the film of this very play, is a less immediately sympathetic Levene than such predecessors in the role as Robert Prosky (and he's certainly less funny than Alan Alda who last played the part on Broadway). Though Pryce gives us the contours of someone whose own heat has cooled to a point of severest perturbation, one feels this actor is capable both of greater attack and also more and richer pathos. Aidan Gillen, in turn, must be the most