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THEATER REVIEW: “Glengarry Glen Ross” is stellar at La Jolla Playhouse

The tacky Chinese restaurant where Shelly Levene (Peter Maloney) and John Williamson (Johnny Wu) meet has duct tape on the red plastic booth and a fish tank behind it with three fish swimming aimlessly.

Shelly and his colleagues sell real estate of dubious value; Shelly is in a dry spell, come to beg a few decent leads from office manager John. But it’s 1983 in Chicago; the economy is bad, good leads are scarce and management gives them to the top producers. No amount of begging or pleading can shake loose a decent lead for Shelly.

The fish in the tank are not sharks, nor is the Chinese dragon in the tank’s bottom real, but the symbolism is clear: Shelly and John and their colleagues are as trapped in their own jobs as these fish, but the human are swimming for their economic lives.

“Glengarry Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s great modern classic of capitalism in a time of economic collapse, gets a fine production at La Jolla Playhouse, with the theater’s artistic director Christopher Ashley at the helm.

Next in the booth are salesmen Dave Moss (James Sutorius) and George Aaronow (Ray Anthony Thomas). In one of the play’s best scenes, Moss uses the sales technique that has put him in second place on “the board” – which includes seduction, confusion, and blackmail – to get him to agree to an office break-in to steal the leads from the files. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, matched here by stunning acting.

Last in are top shark, er, producer Richard Roma (Manu Narayan) and his latest mark, the timid Jeff Marlow (James Lingk). Roma is selling not junk property but a dream, and Lingk is just the type to buy from someone like Roma, whose brash self-confidence is not only irresistible but an object of envy for the timorous Lingk.

Todd Rosenthal’s clever set design is a marvel. For the second act, the restaurant booths and fish tank rise out of view, revealing the trashed office, with drawers out and papers scattered all over the floor after the break-in.

Detective Baylen (Matt MacNelly) is in the process of interviewing everyone; the office manager John is talking to Baylen now. It’s clear that someone will pay. What’s not clear is who.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” exposes capitalism at its ugliest – when times are bad and salesmen turn on each other, when desperation threatens to distort whatever moral bedrock was there to begin with and the inner self begins to crumble in an attempt to survive.

Mamet is known for a rat-a-tat style of dialogue named for him, and “Glengarry” is probably the best example of Mametspeak in the repertoire. Here Mamet’s ever-present profanity reaches saturation point (those offended by the f-word are advised to skip this play) and the verbal interplay among the actors – who must talk (and talk over) each other in a precise order – requires absolute synchronization.

Ashley has the right cast for the task. Maloney is heartbreaking as Shelly, the most desperate, a broken man like Miller’s Willy Loman who knows his best selling days are behind him.

Narayan’s Roma is everything you’d expect a sleazebag salesman to be: fleet of tongue, shy on ethics and a human verbal bulldozer who doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

Wu’s office manager Williamson is the kind of boss we’ve all had: monomaniacally interested in the bottom line, willing to lie or overstate for his cause.

Sutorius’ Moss can twist the facts with the best (maybe that’s why he’s the number two salesman); Thomas’ George lacks the swagger and pushiness of a Moss, but you feel he’ll develop both – if he survives.

Marlow is a perfect Lingk, acknowledging with posture and a certain quaver in the voice that he’s out of his depths with Roma. MacNelly’s implacable steeliness is just right as the detective.

Kudos to the rest of the design team as well: Toni Leslie James for the costumes, David Lander for the evocative lighting and David Corsello for the sound design.
Ashley has said he’s wanted to direct this play since he saw the first production on Broadway. We’re lucky he finally got his chance.

The details

“Glengarry Glen Ross” plays through Oct. 21 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call 858- 550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.