Hard Times Come Again

Modern classic 'Glengarry Glen Ross' at Beowulf addresses today's economic woes

David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross has a timely focus: Its real estate salesmen, squeezed by tight finances and demanding bosses, turn to ever-more dubious tactics in an effort to keep their jobs.

The increasingly desperate characters in this ensemble play are foul-mouthed racists—but you feel for them as they anxiously try to unload property in a dismal economic climate.

The subject feels particularly resonant against the backdrop of 2012 America. Yet Glengarry was written years before our most recent bust: It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984 and became a critically acclaimed film in 1992.

Maybe America's current economic woes are good business for Mamet's decades-old drama. Al Pacino, a cast member in the movie, recently opened a Broadway revival of Glengarry to packed audiences. Cynicism and desperation sell well right now.

Unlike the Broadway show, the new production at Beowulf Alley, directed by Susan Arnold, did not exactly open to a packed house. Still, it's a solid if not flawless production, and it deserves an audience.

Keep in mind that Mamet's challenging script is not for everyone. The structure can be confusing, and the dialogue is written in Mamet's signature style: His characters give long, ranting speeches, often peppered with obscenities, and they frequently stop and start, interrupting themselves in an effort to make themselves understood.

Jim Ambrosek takes on the small role of sad-sack potential client James Lingk, who is briefly dazzled by top salesman Richard Roma (Clark Ray). Ambrosek gives Lingk an appropriately defeated posture and gait. But his major contributions are behind the scenes: Ambrosek is also responsible for the set design so crucial to the plot.

Stage left is a Chinese restaurant (called by the salesmen, with their marked cultural sensitivity, "the Chink"), where Act 1 takes place. Combined with lighting by Chris Kent, who uses a red Chinese-style lamp to partially illuminate the stage, Ambrosek's set gives a sense of a greasy Chinese eatery.

Stage right is the center of the action for Act 2. It's a busy sales office, made claustrophobic by four large desks crammed together. While the salesmen are stuck in this grim space, authority figures Williamson (Michael "Miko" Gifford) and Baylen (Mark Klugheit) can retreat at any time behind the closed door of an unseen inner sanctum.

The cast mostly does well with the demanding script, though the way Mamet structures Act 1 is hard on the actors as well as on the audience. We are privy to a trio of scenes in the Chinese restaurant, each with two characters. All three scenes are great showcases for one character—and, consequently, one actor—while the other character does little more than listen. This lopsided setup makes Act 1 feel a bit like a tennis match in which only one player at a time is allowed a racket.

Still, the actors who get the chance to swing that racket shine in Act 1. Bill Epstein, as old-timer Shelly, cajoles manager Williamson into giving him better customer leads. Michael Fenlason, playing embittered salesman Dave Moss, floats a potentially criminal plot. Ray, as hot-shot salesman Roma, dazzles poor Lingk. All three are great fun to watch.

Their counterparts have little to do, and are consequently less effective. Gifford, who has previously acted with ease and charm on the Beowulf stage, is stiff and awkward as Williamson. Despite having less dialogue, he could have done more: As the boss, Williamson has considerable power over Shelly—power he uses later to devastating effect.

Act 2, in which we see the aftermath of Act 1's scheming, picks up the pace considerably. Still, you'd be forgiven for finding the story hard to follow.

For the movie version, Mamet added a new character, Blake, to help explain the sales contest that figures so large in the story. The new movie lines added for Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) have become Glengarry's most-oft-quoted. "First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado," Blake says of the contest. ... "Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired." Beowulf is using the original stage script, and Blake is missed, not simply for his famous lines, but also because he helps establish the premise of the story clearly and succinctly. Without him, the plot can get lost amid the rapid-fire dialogue and ranting speeches.

Yet even without Blake's zingers, Arnold and her cast give us a sense of the grim Glengarry world—and the tragic ends to which economic competition can drive humans.