Entertainment :: Theatre

Glengarry Glen Ross

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Wednesday Dec 12, 2012
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Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale
Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale  

In a Saturday Night Live parody of "Glengarry Glen Ross" Alec Baldwin played a motivational speaker sent to Santa Claus’s North Pole workshop who tries to inspire a group of disgruntled elves to produce more toys by telling them that it was all about ABC.

In this version though the ABC stands not for Always Be Closing, but Always Be Cobbling.

Could there be a more clear indicator that David Mamet’s play and movie about a crooked Chicago real estate office has entered the nation’s consciousness than that it’s assumed even "SNL" audiences will get the references?

That kind of universal familiarity with a story and characters works at cross-purposes, however, to providing critics and audiences with a consistently satisfying new production. So maybe it’s not surprising that critical response to the current revival, which stars as Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale (Of TV’s "Boardwalk Empire"), has been all over the map.

Is it the tour de force that some have asserted or the near catastrophe suggested by others?

This critic is old enough to remember the first Broadway production of the play. It was, in fact, the first Broadway straight play I ever saw, and I have not forgotten the brilliance of director Gregory Mosher’s initial staging or Joe Mantegna’s smoothness and charm in the part of master salesman Ricky Roma.

This version of the play is helmed by Daniel Sullivan, and it has Cannavale in the role that Mantegna played on stage and that Pacino took on in the film version, which added Baldwin’s character.

The choice of Sullivan as director seems to me a mostly positive one, the choice of Cannavale much less so.

Blessed with a cast that not only includes Pacino but David Harbour, John C. McGinley, Jeremy Shamos and Murphy Guyer, Sullivan’s production brings a special pathos and a great delicacy to many of the play’s small moments.

Sullivan may be the best director in America of naturalistic drama. This means that the production does not have quite the pace that Mosher’s did, and Sullivan and his scenic designer Eugene Lee’s more realistic sets remove one of Mosher’s best tricks -- suggesting in a first act scene that two people who have never met before are, in fact, friends -- as it also diminishes some of the play’s power as metaphor.

But, blessed with a cast that not only includes Pacino but David Harbour, John C. McGinley, Jeremy Shamos and Murphy Guyer, Sullivan’s production brings a special pathos and a great delicacy to many of the play’s small moments while disguising its contrivances.

Pacino especially makes you feel the story, showing that is more than just a brilliant dark comedy, making you care for the play’s declining protagonist, Shelley "The Machine" Levene. This Shelley Levene will remind you of many fading, not especially suave, salesmen you have met in life. As Pacino moved about the stage in his ill-fitting suit, I remembered more than a few and pitied them.

Almost more remarkably, David Harbour manages to humanize the oily, self-conceited office manager Williamson while Guyer brings a remarkable force and concentration to the small part of the detective Baylen. And Shamos is as superb as ever.

The only serious weakness, really, in this very powerful and effective production is Cannavale. The Boardwalk Empire star has the presence required for his role, but he has neither the ease with words that the part calls for nor the smoothness and intelligence demanded.

This Ricky Roma sounds like he’s delivering speeches when he has an extended monologue, and he screams out that he is a salesmen in his interactions -- the very mark of a bad salesman. He isn’t charming and winning, he’s crude and almost badgering.

To do a play of such high quality with so much that’s good is delivering something other than Florida swamp land. It’s well worth a buy, even if a small part of the parcel doesn’t smell as sweet as the rest.

(Full disclosure: actor and playwright Murphy Guyer is a friend.)

"Glengarry Glen Ross" runs through Jan. 20 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. For tickets or info, visit http://www.nyc.com/broadway_tickets/glengarry_glen_ross.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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