Hard sell 

Glengarry Glen Ross can't quite close the deal

It's hard to watch almost anything written by playwright David Mamet and not walk away speaking entirely in "Mamet Speak." Short, choppy dialogue. Repetition of certain words. Loads of machismo and mind games. Even more swearing. Mamet doesn't write pretty plays, but few things are as captivating as listening to line after gritty line of his signature staccato style.

His Pulitzer-winning Glengarry Glen Ross captures "Mamet Speak" as well as anything he's ever written. First staged in 1984, and then popularized in the 1992 film starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin, the play pits a collection of slick-tongued, double-crossing real estate salesmen against each other in an effort to sell lousy plots of land to "deadbeats" and "Polacks." The first act is simply three separate one-on-one conversations in a Chinese restaurant. In only one conversation does someone bother to stand up. To say this play rests entirely on Mamet's dialogue—and the actors' ability to successfully execute it—is like saying a skydiver relies on a parachute. Without it working, there's not much else to fall back on.

click to enlarge Erik Harris, left, and Mike Verdon star in Montana Rep Missoula’s Glengarry Glen Ross. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS

In the current production by Montana Rep Missoula (MRM), directed by University of Montana professor Michael Murphy, Mamet's dialogue survives just fine. It doesn't sizzle, like it should, and it doesn't fall flat, like it could. It's fine. Some actors nail it. Some don't. Some run hot and cold from scene to scene. The end product winds up, flatly, just fine.

Calling it fine sounds like a cop-out, but it's intentional considering Mamet loves the word. His characters use it constantly to acknowledge a point, to concede something valid but ultimately cursory to their larger argument. In the opening scene, Shelly "The Machine" Levene, a desperate huckster stuck on a losing streak, begs for his boss to give him—and not the best salesman in the office, Roma—the best leads. "The Glengarry Highland's leads, you're sending Roma out. Fine," reasons Levene. "He's a good man. We know what he is. He's fine...All I'm saying, you look at the board, he's throwing them away, he's throwing the leads away. All I'm saying, that you're wasting leads." Similarly, MRM's production is fine, it's a good play. All I'm saying, it throws away chances to be great.

A lot of the issues come down to the cast, which is frustratingly uneven. At one end of the spectrum slouches Mike Verdon as Levene. Verdon has a history of stealing scenes with MRM, most notably as an unhinged detective in the 2007 production of The Pillowman. Here, he's similarly intense as an aging salesman frantically trying to put together one last run. Verdon's spot-on with Mamet's script, hitting each pause and profanity with the necessary exclamation points. He slumps with the former, mustering everything in his wiry frame to regroup and find a different angle to the argument; with the latter, he shoots spittle across the room, like any indignant "what the fuck" line should. Verdon's so effective at begging for a break in the opening scene that you never want him to leave the stage, despite all his insufferable groveling.

The rest of the cast can't—to borrow a phrase—close the deal like Verdon. Erik Harris has his chances as Roma, a smooth-talking winner decked out in a pinstriped suit. Harris plays the role understated and unruffled, even when delivering lines like, "You ever take a dump made you feel you'd just slept for 12 hours?" He gets away with this cool demeanor in the first act, but in the second, when things go haywire and Roma's competitiveness should kick in, Harris still never lets loose. He kicks and screams, but we never see the crazy eyes and untamed temper that should be evident in the character.

A bigger problem emerges with the production's youngest actors. In a play about the big boys jostling for position in the cutthroat world of commissioned sales, age matters. Most notably, University of Montana sophomore Clayton Importa, who plays the stoic office manager in charge of "marshaling the leads," never has a chance during his scene opposite a pleading Verdon. He's a floor mat rather than a brick wall, and that passiveness carries over into the second act.

The other two salesmen—Rick Martino and Paul Ronaldo as Moss and Aaronow, respectively—are solid, but don't make a lasting impression. It's a problem, then, that Verdon, playing one of the worst salesmen, has the most commanding presence. The whole production seems off-kilter this way, like going to a rock concert and realizing you only want to listen to the bassist.

If nothing else, Verdon's one hell of a bassist. Even when his character isn't the center of attention, he draws you in. During one stretch of the second act, after Levene's been essentially dismissed from the other goings-on on stage, he slowly wanders from the action, alone with his own failures. Verdon spends that entire time staring at nothing in particular, stunned, and slowly crumples the edge of his suit jacket into his fist. He's about to break, clear as day, and it's most apparent in the veins bulging from his balled up left hand. That subtle touch is just one part of a spectacular individual performance. It's a little disappointing that the rest of the production settles for being merely fine.

Glengarry Glen Ross continues at the Crystal Theatre nightly through Saturday, March 6, at 7:30 PM. $10/$5 student rush at 7 PM on Thursday. $15/$5 student rush on Friday and Saturday.

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