“Glengarry Glen Ross”, Adelaide

Ben Brooker at the Bakehouse Theatre

When an actress friend of mine recently asked if I was going to see “the sausage play” I replied I had no idea what she was talking about. A little digging unearthed she was referring to Flying Penguin Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s all-male, high-testosterone, almost forty-year-old play about a group of cutthroat real estate agents whose job it is to sell undesirable land to unwitting Chicagoans.

 

Nicholas Garsden and R Christopher Pitman in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Photo credit: Shane Reid.

 

I say “all-male”, but a quick Google search after our conversation revealed something not entirely surprising: in light of debates about the lack of diversity in theatre, more than a few recent revivals of the play have gender-swapped key roles and further subverted Mamet’s white homogeneity by casting people of colour. Earlier this year, in Sydney, the New Theatre production of Glengarry Glen Ross cast women in no less than three roles, and internationally there have also been all-female versions. It’s not hard to see how such choices might broaden Mamet’s critique of predatory capitalism while also doing the actors the favour of distancing the audience’s minds from the Al Pacino-starring film adaptation that looms large over every production of the play.

It must take a certain something – chutzpah? Ignorance? Plain old traditionalism? – to do Glengarry Glen Ross in 2021 without thinking about any of this, or perhaps thinking about it only to go ahead as though it’s still the mid-1980s anyway. I confess, going into this production, not knowing why anyone would bother reviving Mamet’s play – complete, at least in this production; with the racist dialogue removed by the playwright himself – in such a rote way.

And yet, as the house lights came up after what seemed an impossibly brisk 95 minutes sans interval, I was overtaken by a surprising thought: I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen such an assured piece of theatre, each element attuned precisely to every other, the ensemble, direction, text, and design working alchemically to produce an experience that had, I realised, held me in rapt attention for its entire duration.

Perhaps I’d forgotten that, for all his sweaty, man-spreading unfashionableness, Mamet can write. Really write. And I don’t just mean at the level of dialogue, though that is superb, machine gunlike in its rhythmic pitilessness (re-watching the wildly successful HBO series Succession in preparation for this year’s new season, it struck me that creator Jesse Armstrong’s style owes more than a little to Mamet’s muscularity and flair for invective). Unlike a lot of playwrights, Mamet knows how to do the dramaturgy as well as the dialogue for his own plays, building in a solid structure as he goes. Frequently in Glengarry Glen Ross, while one dramatic problem is playing itself out, another lies just below the surface waiting to explode. It sounds basic, the kind of thing you’d expect young playwrights to have drilled into them at an Arts College, but it’s seldom done at all, let alone well, in new work for the stage.

 

Mark Saturno and James Wardlaw in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Photo credit: Shane Reid.

 

In his program note, director David Mealor writes that it was “the opportunity to assemble an ensemble of leading mid-career South Australian actors… that made me commit to directing a production of the play in 2020” (the production was ultimately pushed back to September 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
It’s not a surprising admission from an actor’s director. Yes, the accents seem to range (not always consistently) across multiple US states, and take in that peculiar invention of drama schools known as “General American”, but the ensemble – white and male as a conservative party conference though it is – is unimpeachable, combining to create no less than a masterclass in a certain kind of acting (no doubt, too, Mealor must take credit for having whipped the actors into shape; the performances, even on opening night, were tight as a drum, with not a moment wasted between words).

As office manager John Williamson, Bill Allert is coiled and defiant; even his voice, reedy like a muted trumpet, evincing some deep, contaminating restraint. Christopher Pitman’s gruff, overbearing real estate agent Dave Moss blusters and blags, a Trumpian archetype complete with Noo York drawl. Rory Walker and Nicholas Garsden, in roles played by Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin respectively in the film, give subtler though no less effective performances, imbuing their characters with a surprising amount of vulnerability and eliciting something close to sympathy from the audience. Perhaps only Mark Saturno, as the alternately boorish and charming alpha-male Richard Roma, does a little more than is necessary to convince us that these characters are all grotesques, mangled out of shape by their gendered social conditioning and the Darwinian imperatives of late capitalism. (The real estate agents are competing in a sales contest, their relative standings tracked on a graph known as “the board”. The winner receives a Cadillac, that all-American emblem of excess and thrusting masculinity. The runner-up wins a set of steak knives. The bottom two men are fired.)

Kathryn Sproul’s design is a marvel. Adhering closely to Mamet’s stage directions, the Chinese restaurant set of the first act – think red vinyl booths, paper lanterns, and unbranded bottles of soy sauce – spectacularly gives way to the real estate sales office in the second, the curtain rising on a faded, film noir-ish sprawl of wooden furniture, typewriters, and a slowly rotating ceiling fan.
Utilizing the full depth of the space, Sproul’s design made me forget for a moment that I was in the Bakehouse, a 90-seat black box theatre that rarely rewards designers with a sense of spaciousness. Quentin Grant’s jazzy sound design, full of tension-ratcheting symbol swishes, makes for the ideal aural accompaniment.

What does a 40-year-old play like Glengarry Glen Ross have to tell us about life in 2021? It might be argued that, not so long after the Global Financial Crisis, its relevance lies in its frank depiction of a phenomenon that wasn’t new in the 1980s and that hasn’t gone away now: our acceptance of domination and exploitation as normal economic practice. What has changed, and what makes both Mamet’s play and this production seem anachronistic, is that this kind of corporate bastardry looks and sounds rather different now when everybody speaks the language of social equality. The same old destructive paradigms are at play, driving historic levels of economic injustice and environmental destruction, but now they’re hidden behind pride flags and mental health brunches. The machismo of Richard Roma, like that of the vulgarians of this world, is far from a spent force – in a way, it reached its flatulent, pussygrabbing apotheosis in the Donald Trump presidency – but it only tells part of the story now. Sausages, it turns out, can be vegan too.

 

Mark Saturno and Bill Allert in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Photo credit: Shane Reid.