Glengarry Glen Ross review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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You have to admire the courage of actor John McTernan, called in during the opening week of the new Melbourne Theatre Company production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross to replace an ill Steve Bisley. Like any music of sharp contours and dissonant combinations, Mamet is fiendishly difficult to learn. Walking into a Mamet play without an automatic grasp of the material is like bringing a sandwich to a knife fight: it’s more than just your lunch that gets cut.

Every line of David Mamet’s dialogue is sharpened to a dangerous point. Every single line. No playwright wants his or her work to be dull, and much brittleness comes from obsessive grinding, but with Mamet the primitive instinct for working ordinary flint into deadly arrowheads is infallible.  And in Glengarry Glen Ross the verbal flint flies thick and fast. This is the best of Mamet’s miraculous Chicago plays, a Tony Award-winning drama about the brutal eat-what-you-kill world of cold-call real estate. Times are tough and sales are down. So head office has created an in-house competition to stimulate the troops: first prize is a new Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives, and third prize — get out of here, you’re fired.

More than any other modern drama, this play needs ensemble fluency to really work. If you don’t have that, the tension, which is all in the magic suspension of broken syntax, overlapping fragments and aggressive silences, simply isn’t there. Unfortunately, McTernan is still performing with the script in hand and is a long way from fluent.

It makes this a difficult production to write about. Shelley Levene is the heart of Glengarry Glen Ross. He is the sacrificial victim of the piece, and his doom is the whole point of Mamet’s cruel ceremony. The old man dies, figuratively, so that the American dream can live. There’s no sentimentality to it: this is a ritual. Levene’s fall is meant to be inevitable. Everyone knows their part – or they ought to. So there’s no point equivocating. That would be un-Mamet-like. This MTC production doesn’t stand up in its present condition. No one is to blame, it just doesn’t. But who knows? There might be a happy run in the last week of the season where it does start to come together.

Certainly there’s a lot of promise. Alex Dimitriades is brilliant as Ricky Roma, the office alpha male played by Al Pacino in James Foley’s landmark film version. Dimitriades doesn’t have Pacino’s smouldering intensity, that bottomless stare, but he is nonetheless a formidable predator, very charismatic, and absolutely believable as an unscrupulous salesman. Brett Cousins is well cast as the poor hump who Ricky saddles with a block of units in Florida. It’s a piteous sight as Dimitriades closes in on him. Their final scene together is the stuff of National Geographic.

Alkinos Tsilimidos is the kind of director you want for this play. He understands all things gritty and crude, and anyone who saw his memorable film version of Ray Mooney’s brutal prison play Everynight … Everynight knows what psychological terrors he can draw from an exclusively male milieu. The whole thing – simple and believable set by Shaun Gurton — is pushed up very near to the audience, putting us right in the crossfire. It’s a hard thing to eke a sense of intimacy from the Sumner Theatre, but Tsilimidos pulls it off.

You almost feel that only something as unforeseeable and crippling as a last-minute withdrawal could have undone this production. Tsilimidos has had a great couple of years at the MTC, beginning with the excellent Red, his Rothko biopiece in 2012, and this failure should be no blot on his reputation.

Greg Stone as the treacherous Moss, architect of a daring office robbery, slowly warms to his expletive-ridden role. What I liked best is Stone’s apparently careless treatment of McTernan. Where, say, Nick Barkla as the sadistic office manager seems very wooden and hesitant around the woebegone figure clutching his script, Stone seems, if anything, even more hostile, not sparing a drop of venom. This has the strange and rather satisfying effect of muddling our pity for both Shelley and McTernan. This play is not about male camaraderie, about helping out a colleague in need: this is a play about war, cold, undeclared, but real.

It’s a delicious if unintended consequence of Bisley’s illness. Not that it comes close to rescuing the play, but in cold Chicago you take what you can.

[box] Glengarry Glen Ross is at the MTC’s Southbank Theatre until August 9.[/box]

One response to “Glengarry Glen Ross review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

  1. Very good review. I’m pleased to report that I attended last night’s performance and John McTernan was a superb Shelley Levene – he still had script in hand but referred to it only occasionally, trading licks with Williamson and Roma adeptly, while capturing the pathos of Shelley’s downfall poignantly. A tough gig to take on indeed. Dimitriadis also great, my only criticism being that perhaps it was a little too like Pacino’s performance…

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