One of the greatest fears for directors of live performances must be the last minute withdrawal of a lead performer. This scenario is what faced Melbourne Theatre Company guest director Alkinos Tsilimidos in the opening week of Glengarry Glen Ross.
Clearly the MTC does not utilise understudies, which led to a delayed opening in July.
The key role of Shelly Levene was picked up by John McTernan, who engaged in an intense three days of rehearsals as ‘the show must go on’.
Playwright David Mamet was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 play and the MTC has returned to it after 30 years. At the time it was seen as shocking, punctuated with profanities delivered at speed by the competitive and disillusioned salesmen (there are no women in this play).
Mamet then adapted the play for the 1991 film of the same name. Alan Arkin, who played George Aaronow in the movie, said that what made the script so challenging was Mamet’s language and rhythms, which were enormously difficult to absorb.
It is therefore little wonder that McTernan struggles to fully inhabit the character of Levene. In the first two performance weeks he was ‘on book’ and in the latter part of the play was increasingly reliant on the text, creating additional challenges for his fellow actors.
For Mamet, the play is not about themes, ideas, or setting, but about what the protagonist wants. The audience feels it is eavesdropping on a series of incomplete conversations, becoming swept up in the drama of the unfolding event.
The event to which Mamet introduces us is a two-day window into the work lives of four salesmen – a fearful and suspicious climate of double dealing, threats, coercion, persuasion, charm and desperation.
This was clearly a time when racist bigotry, workplace harassment and intimidation were more acceptable. Thirty years later the racial slurs are more shocking than the frequent use of invective.
Alex Dimitriades as Richard Roma is entirely convincing as the top salesman of a Chicago-based real estate agency attempting to sell two Florida real estate developments, Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms, in a declining and competitive market.
In one entertaining scene, Levene and Roma, whose success relates to his willingness to chase down the sale without a shred of morality or humanity, attempt to deceive Roma’s client, James Lingk (Brett Cousins), a shy man who has fallen for Roma’s pitch. Levene pretends to be a high flying client as Roma works his magic in an effort to stop Lingk pulling out of the deal he signed the day before.
Another member of the sales team, David Moss (Greg Stone), a particularly nasty conman, manages to manipulate his colleagues as he orchestrates the culmination of the event. This dog-eat-dog world of sales shines the spotlight on a society which promotes desire and longing for a better life. At its most raw, competition for the consumerist dollar is fuelled by naked greed. This is what Mamet has so eloquently exposed through staccato dialogue and aggressive behaviours.
While the production has been impacted by the illness of a lead actor, it is still an engaging play from a highly regarded and controversial playwright and screenwriter.
Review by Penny Mulvey
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, Sumner Theatre Melbourne until 9 August.