'Glengarry' still bracing after all these years

"Look at me!" David Dials — as the Willy Loman-like salesman Shelly "the Machine" Levene — yells at his manager early in the revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross" that opened Friday night at Oregon Stage Works.

But Dayvin Turchiano, playing the iceman Williamson, doesn't look. In David Mamet's dog-eat-dog world of sleazy real estate hustlers, your individuality, your humanity, doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is the "board" where your "closings" are tallied. And Levene can't get around on the fastball anymore.

Director Bill Langan has staged Mamet's dark comedy straight rather than reinterpreting it or tricking it up. And why not. With taut direction and a terrific cast delivering Mamet's zingy prosody, the effect is like a strong, double Irish coffee. This world makes us dizzy, but there's something bracing about it.

Langan has underscored the urban jungle nature of this world with the use of raw rhythm-and-blues cuts such as "Smokestack Lightnin' " and "Rocket 88" to introduce the play's two acts.

If these salesmen are a socioeconomic step up from the lowlifes of "American Buffalo," their interior landscape, as evidenced by their language, is not so different. They have debased themselves and been debased by the system in which they exist: a savage microcosm of American capitalism at its most Darwinian.

Instead of swiping coins, they aim to sell worthless or overpriced parcels of Florida land to gullible investors.

The 40-minute first act unfolds in set designer Brian Wallace's minimalist Chinese restaurant where the salesmen hang out. Three two-person scenes establish the characters' struggle for survival and power and introduce a conspiracy to commit a crime that will provide the structure of the second act.

A scene of Moss and Aaronow dueling and feinting and pussyfooting around the nuances of the phrases "talking about" and "speaking about" is a mini-masterpiece.

These guys use language as a weapon. They use casual cursing along with strutting and posing to con, to wound, to hustle, to intimidate, to befuddle, to manipulate, to build a phony bonhomie or a blustering defense. Without bang-bang timing none of this would work.

It's telling that in this mono-syllabic, profanity-laced world (the f-word is an all-purpose adjective used, by one count, more than 150 times), the only instance of rough language being used in a context of sexuality or intimacy comes in a breathtakingly dishonest sales pitch made by current alpha-dog salesman Ricky Roma, played with relish by Peter Alzado, OSW's artistic director.

Beneath the coarse surface are rhythms, textures, riffs that tell us who these guys are. Levene's language darts between starts and sudden stops as he becomes increasingly desperate. Roma's rises like a jazzman's solo as he marks his territory. Williamson's is brusque, icy, dismissive.

Aaronow (Richard Heller) is such a nowhere man, and so under the thrall of the cynical Moss (Sam King) that he can barely frame a sentence, being forced to resort to comical fragments. Likewise, poor, duped Lingk (Joe Charter) is so thoroughly befuddled by Roma that he can't form the words to demand his rights as a consumer.

Baylen (Tim Kelly), a tough cop out to solve the crime that provides the play's sub-plot, a burglary of the seedy Chicago office where these miscreants work, seems at first to be the only linguistic straight-shooter. But his tough talk is just a tool of a badged bully.

The real point of "Glengarry Glen Ross" is the rot at the center of this world in which scrub land is marketed under such names as "Glengarry Highlands" and "Glen Ross Farms." The language may not have the shock value it did in 1984 — our ears have been coarsened by rap music, angry politics, younger playwrights' street language — but the rot at the center of a certain kind of capitalism has been playing out on the evening news for some years now. We have seen Enron, Tyco, exotic instruments for packaging greed, various bailouts.

Mamet seems to have a certain small reservoir of affection for his flawed hustlers. They're victims too, and with the exception of the reptilian Williamson, they at least have the guts to pull themselves up and go out like soldiers in the wrongheaded service of a lost cause.

Langan's direction is true to this vision, and he and the cast even endow these characters with a vestige of flawed humanity. It's a bracing brew.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

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