Glengarry Glen Ross starring Christian Slater at the Playhouse Theatre – review round-up
David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now revered as an all-American classic, actually started its life in London.
Its first production came courtesy of Peter Hall’s National in 1983, Bill Bryden’s Cottesloe staging being hailed as a stunning example of ensemble acting and earning the play an Olivier award.
Its Broadway premiere the next year followed suit, was showered in prizes and cemented the play’s canonical status. It was adapted into a film by director James Foley in 1992, and has been regularly seen on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. London last saw it at the Apollo in 2007, in a production directed by James Macdonald and starring Jonathan Pryce.
Sam Yates’ revival, which stars American movie star Christian Slater alongside Robert Glenister, Kris Marshall, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington, arrives at just the right – or perhaps wrong – time, with the problems caused by toxic masculinity dominating newspaper headlines and social media feeds every day.
Does Mamet’s fast-talking, expletive-filled depiction of sleazy real-estate salesmen scrapping it out still pack a punch? Are Slater and his co-stars sharp enough for the play’s slippery, slicker-than-slick dialogue? Can Yates’ revival make a deal with the critics, or does he leave them wanting more?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Glengarry Glen Ross – same old stuff
Mamet’s play has proved itself an indisputable classic – a whip-sharp dissection of the American Dream, played out amid the sweat and grime of a frenetic Chicago real-estate agency. Does it still make a killing in 2017, though?
According to Susan Sheahan (Observer, ★★★★), Glengarry Glen Ross “still thrills as a spectacular interrogation of self-deception and greed in a world of merciless capitalism”. According to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), it remains “a startlingly short, painfully sharp excavation of the desperation that lies under the alpha male ego”.
For Kasia Delgado (Radio Times, ★★★★), Mamet’s play is a “mesmerising dissection of how warped masculinity can reap carnage”, and for Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) “its report from the front line of cut-throat capitalism still rings true”.
“There are few better plays about flop sweat and workplace hustling than Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer prizewinner,” adds Maxie Szalwinska (Sunday Times, ★★★). “It’s a chronicle of despair, strutting around and manspreading in cheap suits in pursuit of the American dream.”
Why does it remain so powerful? “Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that its savage view of the kind of capitalism that sets a group of grown men at each others’ throats to come top of the ‘board’ and win a Cadillac or pay their daughter’s medical bills has grown more relevant with every passing year,” answers Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★). “Perhaps it’s because its portrait of the group dynamics of the protagonists arguing about what it is to be a man is so compelling. Or maybe it is simply that its tightly strung dialogue that perfectly catches the rhythm and lilt of salesmen’s patter offers irresistible opportunities to its all-male cast.”
“If you want to see a graphic picture of the free-market in an age of economic downturn then there’s no better evocation of the pains of capitalism than this drama,” contends Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★★). “In the age of Trump, the cocksure celebrant of the ideal of the deal, it has a fresh relevance: this is the America of his dreams, red in tooth and claw.”
Whatever the reason, all the critics agree that Glengarry Glen Ross is still affecting today. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) calls it “bitterly funny and acutely savage”, Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) writes that “Mamet’s lancing of American masculinity and capitalism feels more an indictment than ever” and Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★) calls the play “a vision of toxic masculinity, heartless greed and the way both these things seem to flourish in the marketplace”.
“Apart from Death of a Salesman, is there a better play than this about selling?” asks Robert Gore-Langton (Mail on Sunday, ★★★★). “A period piece for sure, but this is an American classic that sells itself.”
Glengarry Glen Ross – wheeler dealers
Mamet’s play is populated by a rack of reprobates, with four sneaking, stealing salesmen, played here by Slater, Glenister, Townsend and Warrington, at the centre of it all. Do they sink their teeth into these juicy parts?
Slater, most agree, is on fine form as the slick Ricky Roma. He’s “all sleaze, charm and cheekbones” according to Gore-Langton, a “masterclass in toxic masculinity” according to Lukowski, and “terrifyingly charismatic” according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★).
“Slater plays the vulpine Ricky Roma with a razor wire smile,” describes Tripney. “He’s a weapon on legs, all tongue and teeth, with a slightly hollow quality that makes him all the more dangerous.”
“Fresh-faced and laid-back, with a diamond glint in his eye, he’s got something his older, run-down colleagues lack – confidence, ease, the semblance of youth,” adds Matt Trueman (Variety). “He oozes contentment and stinks of success, at least to the untrained nose.”
“The rest of the ensemble are also impressive,” writes Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★). “Glenister excels as the bombastic and slimy Dave Moss. Townsend all but hugs his character, the down-and-out salesman Shelley ‘the Machine’ Levene. Warrington is the office fall guy and Marshall prances around as the office manager John, a box-ticker who has never sold anything to anyone. It’s like watching a Monopoly-themed stag do.”
“There’s real enjoyment in watching this stellar cast deliver these outrageous, expletive-ridden speeches with such panache,” agrees Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★).
Others, though, find fault with some of the performances, Cavendish complaining that Marshall “could be more viperish and less wallflowery”, and Sierz bemoaning Slater for being “almost too nice”. “Slater has a lot of energy but he never seems to believe what he says,” chips in Crompton. “Roma should hold the audience, like his clients, in the palm of his seductive hand; Slater keeps it at bay with a breezy smile.”
“There are simply too many dubious American accents in Yates’ production for us fully to buy into it,” observes Szalwinska. “The worst offender is probably Warrington’s befuddled, soupily sad George Aaronow.”
Glengarry Glen Ross – polished to over-perfection
Mamet’s play remains savagely superb, then, and is either knocked out of the park or slightly under-served by its starry cast here, depending on who you read. Can director Yates’ production close the deal?
Although Yates’ staging has its plaudits – it’s “sharp” according to Hitchings, “hard” and “terse” for Lukowski, “finely polished” according to Hemming – most critics think something crucial is missing, something essential to the power of the play.
For Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★), it “feels disappointingly hollow”, for Adam Bloodworth (Metro, ★★★), there are “a few too many laughs and not quite enough head-scratching”, and for Sally Hales (Exeunt), “a weird, dispassionate disengagement hangs in the air”.
“Yates’ revival is often missing the crucial swelter of brutish anxiety,” reckons Szalwinska. “Strange to say, but it’s neither slick enough nor grubby enough.”
“This production, directed by rising star Sam Yates, doesn’t dig very deep,” agrees Crompton. “It seems so in love with Mamet’s words, with the way they ebb and flow, that it skates along the surface of them, losing their passionate meaning.”
“While Yates hints at the desperation – and terror – that drives these characters, it’s far more understated than it was in the 1992 film version,” echoes Tripney. “The sweat you just know is pooling beneath their shirts, the appalling fragility of these men’s shells: you glimpse these things occasionally, but only occasionally.”
“What’s missing, at least initially and a touch too glaringly, from Yates’ production,” chimes Cavendish, “is a palpable sense of the clock ticking – a stomach-churning countdown to personal catastrophe.”
“There are some moments in this enjoyably funny, often magnetic and occasionally lacerating evening when you miss the sheer ferocious passion of previous versions, but in general it does deliver the goods,” reasons Sierz.
“In the end,” concludes Crompton, “this is a lively but overly polite version of a great American play that pays it respect, without ever illuminating its dark and passionate heart.”
Glengarry Glen Ross – is it any good?
Mamet’s play, all the critics agree, is as stylishly scabrous as it was 30 years ago, and it resonates even more in 2017 with a jumped-up, real-life Ricky Roma in the Oval Office. Glengarry Glen Ross simultaneously deconstructs the white-knuckle ride of cut-throat capitalism and the coruscating, corrosive cancer of competitive masculinity, all in gloriously spry, sweary salesmen schtick.
A mix of three and four-star reviews, though, suggests a production that doesn’t quite sell itself to the critics. Yates’ revival has a decent cast – Slater is superb by most accounts – but its surface-level schmoozing doesn’t quite strike at the searing centre of Mamet’s masterpiece.