Death of a Fucking Salesman

2012 has been a year of great Broadway revivals—first Death of a Salesman, followed by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and now David Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross, likely the best American play of the last thirty years.

Al Pacino, who played Richard Roma in James Foley’s 1992 film, returns as Shelley “The Machine” Levine, a modern-day Willy Loman.  With papery skin and thinning gray hair, through which he is constantly running his fingers, Mr. Pacino often behaves like an elderly man at a bus station who has forgotten where he is and where he’s going.  Stammering through recollections of better times—you look at the books, you’ll see, he was on top for eight months out of twelve in for three years in a row—his wide eyes rarely make contact with his peers; instead, they glaze over as he searches through the audience for a sympathetic listener.  Later, when he briefly believes he is back, he skips across the stage, wagging his tongue and narrating “war stories” with the fervor of an expert raconteur.  “I’m eating her crumb cake,” he tells Roma (Bobby Cannavale), lapping up the mimed dessert as well as his colleague’s enthusiasm.  “How was it?” asks Roma.  “From the store.”  “Fuck her.”

Roma has been slightly rewritten in order to be more sympathetic—in the script, his affection for Shelley is orchestrated; here, it is at least ostensibly genuine.  Nonetheless, Mr. Cannavale plays him with a terrifying masculinity.  Wearing sunglasses and occasionally using them as a mirror to check his slicked back hair, he epitomizes the company mantra, “Always be closing.”  He’s the cool kid you know is just feigning interest in your life so you’ll do his homework—but you don’t care, he’s such a good actor, such a good salesman, that even his false friendship tickles your ego.  James Lingk (Jeremy Shamos), a sheepish customer who falls under his charm, witnesses an event that confirms that Roma has screwed him and still ends their relationship by asking, “Forgive me.”  Still, at any moment, his sociopathic charm will click off and he’ll start calling you a “stupid fucking cunt.”

With the exception of David Harbour, who plays Williamson with too much self-consciousness, this is a first-rate cast.  Mr. Shamos, who was spectacular in Clybourne Park, is not given much here, but still plays his part with grace—Lingk, after all, is probably the only character in Glengarry with grace.  John C. McGinley, playing David Moss, exercises the veins on his forehead and in his neck as he rails against the company, and Richard Schiff, as George Aaronow, completely inhabits the poor schlemiel.  In his conversations with Moss, he is complacent with never getting out three or four words before being cut off.

With Glengarry Glen Ross, Mr. Mamet has performed a masterful feat—there is rarely a moment that is not both tragic and hilarious, a scene that is not both misanthropic and humanistic.  His dialogue is spare and barbed, like Harold Pinter’s, and perfectly depicts that space where men don’t talk so much to each other but over each other.  It is a devastating parade of machismo—and one that cannot be missed.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs through January 20th at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.  236 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.

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Aaron Botwick

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