Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mamet's masterpiece lights up Merrimack

David Adkins, Todd Licea and Joel Colodner in Glengarry Glen Ross.  Photo: Meghan Moore.

The Merrimack Rep is perhaps our leading example of a great theatre constrained by its budget. They consistently operate in the black, and enjoy a great deal of support from their community (indeed, up in Merrimack you feel an extraordinary bond between the theatre and its audience, closer and more trusting than just about anywhere else).  But you can also feel in their season, which is typically devoted to small-cast plays, a sense of financial (and hence to some degree artistic) limits. This perception is particularly acute given the fact that their "big" play each season is so reliably terrific. One guesses that with only a little more funding, Merrimack could mount seasons that would consistently rival, and possibly eclipse, the best being done on the regional landscape.

Certainly Glengarry Glen Ross (through this weekend only) is the most powerful show currently on the local boards.  It's true I've never seen David Mamet's balls-out potboiler fail; given a competent cast, its nasty mix of coiled masculine anxiety, frustration, and aggression always grips.  After all, it's practically an X-ray of the power dynamics of the locker room, where the stakes are always high, and the men always naked (at least metaphorically).

What's more, alas, the script also makes one reminisce for the days before Mamet lost his mind to the political and sexual paranoias one would associate with a denizen of one of his shark tanks. For Glengarry is not only perhaps his greatest play, it's also his last great play; in his next major effort, Speed-the-Plow, Mamet crossed over from sympathy with his bad boys to identification with them. Women became the Enemy, and thus the ironic finale of Glengarry, which dashes any hope of honor among his masculine thieves, would prove the last of its kind in the playwright's oeuvre.

But at least we have director Charles Towers, and the cast at Merrimack (which is far better than competent), to remind us how electrifying the playwright once was. You could argue, I suppose, that this Glengarry plays everything by the book - but to my mind that only underlines the fact that, as the culture really moves so slowly these days, the play's constructs still feel up-to-the-minute. Mamet's men are stripped of any connection to society at large, much less the other sex. They seem to exist in a vacuum, and even their sales prowess is somehow evanescent; it's a skill - or a potency - that has no physical basis (it can evaporate at a customer's whim). Thus these men are only men when they believe they're men, and so their emotional predicament in a way feels timeless (even if the sums of money in play clearly date the script).

David Adkins and Will Lebow make a deal.  Photo: Meghan Moore.

They are, of course, not only near-tragic figures but snakes-in-the-swampgrass as well. As mentioned earlier, part of what makes Glengarry so much more bracing than later Mamet is that it's so unsentimental about the dishonesty and back-stabbing moving behind the solemn cult of masculinity. Mamet's real estate gods - so seemingly concerned with admiration and trust - are constantly cheating on the down low; their very livelihood, in fact, is based on proverbial Florida swampland. (Which may be why the play was at first misinterpreted as a critique of capitalism.)

Fortunately the cast at Merrimack is all but expert at floating between these opposed identities and moral poles - and their command of the famously staccato "Mamet-speak" (here at its hilarious height) is virtuosic.  As cocky top salesdog Ricky Roma, Todd Licea exudes a more open sense of predatory Las-Vegas charisma than usual, but he so smoothly manipulates each and every social transaction that his sales success is utterly convincing.  Ditto for Will LeBow's desperate Shelly Levene, a kind of lizard on his last legs who alternates between claims of prowess (he was once known as "The Machine") and pathetically low compromises, deals - and even thefts.

These two superb actors supply the engine of Mamet's own machine, but there are several remarkable performances elsewhere in the production. Merrimack mainstay David Adkins gives his Williamson (the shop boss, in effect) a stronger shot of alienation than callow slime, but he's intriguing all the same. Meanwhile Jeremiah Wiggins is just about perfect as the shop's latest mark, and Jim Ortlieb makes the aging, bumbling Aaronow a figure of true pathos.  I was only dissatisfied with Charlie Kevin's Moss, who had less of a hidden edge than I think the character demands - but after the play's opening gambit, his is a minor role.

In its look and feel, the physical production is likewise just right - from the blood-red backdrop of the Chinese restaurant to the cheap, off-white gypsum board of the burgled office (thank you, designer Bill Clarke).  All in all, Towers and company have practically built a time machine on the Merrimack stage (even the salesmen's 80's-era ethnic slurs have been preserved, along with the c-word, and a deluge of other profanity).  It all brings us back to the days when Mamet was a playwright of promise, and still had the talent (and self-awareness) to grip you by the lapels - and not let go.

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