Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The cymbal crash at the end: A meditation on last lines in poetry (in memoriam Richard Wilbur)


There is no good ending admits fade-out.
         —Geoffrey Hill, "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix" 

Richard Wilbur: The image of his poems' cymbal-crash endings stayed with me.
Richard Wilbur died over the weekend, shortly before my greatly anticipated 50th-anniversary class reunion at Kalamazoo College next weekend. The coincidence has significant force for me because of a striking image suggested to me by a classmate more than a half-century ago.

When I first encountered Wilbur's work, I was a sophomore English major at K College. Something that she said about Wilbur's poetry — the best of which was fresh and modern in 1964 — has stayed with me. "I like the way his poems end with sort of a cymbal crash," she said.

I don't remember which Wilbur poems she cited, but I'm sure we had some of the same ones in mind.  "Advice to a Prophet," for example, with its formal stanzas warning a generic prophet against an exclusively human emphasis in the doomsday scenarios that were in the air then as now:

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

CH-issshhhh!

Or "Still, Citizen Sparrow," painting at first a contrast between the common life of the sparrow and the predatory one of the vulture, before moving to Noah's lofty perspective at the Ark's helm above the flood:

...Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah's sons.

Chissssh!


Or what the soul says to the waking body in contemplation of clean laundry on clotheslines in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World":

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
                       keeping their difficult balance.

Chissssh!

The cymbal-crash resonance of poetic endings is no easy test of a poem's worth, however. And its perception by a reader may be too seductive. As a teen-ager, I probably overestimated two overanthologized poems because of how they ended, conclusions that noisily turned the key in the locks of two brief lyrics: E.E. Cummings' "Buffalo Bill's" and E.A. Robinson's "Richard Cory." The legendary showman and sharpshooter in Cummings' poem has passed on, so that the poet asks: ...and what I want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death" and Robinson's debonair envied townsman who "one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head." I loved the airtight conclusiveness of those lyrics.

When we are first fired up by poetry, we may resist scrutinizing such definitive endings as gimmickry.  Later on, we assemble a repertoire of personal cymbal-crashes in last lines that seem better earned. William Butler Yeats was a master of them; no one could elude fade-outs better, as we know from the oft-quoted lines ending "The Second Coming," "Prayer for My Daughter," and "Sailing to Byzantium."

When a poet uses a refrain, he potentially dissipates cymbal-crash energy across the whole poem. That threatens the specialness of the final iteration.Yeats finds a way of making the last time special in "John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore," because he contrasts the joys of the fallen world with prelapsarian grace in Eden, coming out in favor of the former. The last four lines:  "No quarrels over ha'pence there / They pluck the trees for bread. / What shall I do for pretty girls / Now my old bawd is dead?"*

Chissssh!

In older poetry, making a big deal over the last line fitted into the smoother rhetoric the Romantics developed. Today you don't get the kind of predawn view of any metropolis available to William Wordsworth of London in 1802. After sustained exaltation, the sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" ends, "And all that mighty heart is lying still!"  The poem has already been stuffed with wonder at the quiet city, but the last line tops everything. It does so  partly though its sound: All monosyllables except for two words with the open assonance of "mighty" and "lying."

Since the clash of cymbals is sound, the sound of lines with such clashes is not irrelevant. Another such is the close of Tennyson's "Ulysses."  Encouraging himself and his crew to undertake a final voyage, Ulysses ends his pep talk with "...that which we are, we are, — / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

You can't resist that — you're ready to sail!

Nothing but monosyllables in the last two lines, capped by those thundering infinitives. You can almost hear a cymbal crash on each verb, not merely a strong accent.

As you come to admire last lines, you realize that a lyric poet is always fearful of fade-out, in a career as well as in a poem. This has resulted in great poems with cymbal crashes that feel a bit like tags. There is didacticism in the ending of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Robert Frost's "Directive," two extravagantly admired examples of those poets' mastery. The detail in each is exquisite, but we can be made uneasy by the "directives" ending each of them, not just Frost's "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion," but also Keats' "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Only each poet's skill in building toward them seems to justify such sententious endings. You can feel other poets gauging their endings carefully, resisting tying a fancy bow on their gift. The famous conclusion of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" is a patterned cymbal crash in diminuendo. He could be more direct about it elsewhere, but indirection was his metier, and the gaudiness of his imagery seems designed not to put too much weight on a poem's conclusion. A notable exception is "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," where muted,  glum color imagery gives way at the end to

Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Cymbal crash! And also in the bleak lyric "The Snow Man." It's a cold cymbal crash, and it can make us uneasy about the poem as well as about Stevens' uncustomary explicitness. Evoking the feeling of a January wind near woods "That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  A cymbal crash of nothingness.

Always something of a sport,  Stevens felt the hazard of majestic cymbals at the end; stuttering inconclusively, he ends "The Man on the Dump" with this: "Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the."

John Ashbery (1927-2017)
Ashbery, the other major American poet besides Wilbur who died in 2017, takes his peripatetic view over surprising terrain and tends not to follow the Stevens of "The Man on the Dump." Yet he dials down wavering intensity as he wraps up a loose-limbed lyric, ending with a finger snap or flick of the wrist in preference to a cymbal crash. But I can think of a couple that resonate for me with the echo of shimmering discs from the percussion section. "The Gazing Grain"* rises a little at the end, especially when the plainness of the last line is contrasted with the strikingly odd next-to-last one:

...We come back to ourselves
Through the rubbish of cloud and tree-spattered pavement.
These days stand like vapor under the trees.

Not a Wilburian cymbal crash, but still....

 Here's an odder one, and I can't account for in its effect on me. A distant castle, sprung up out of nowhere like so many things in Ashbery poems, "...weighs its shadow ever heavier on the mirroring / Surface of the river, surrounding the little boat with three figures in it." I have no idea why I find the final image so moving; maybe it's because humanity is somewhat intrusive and threatening throughout much of  "Voyage in the Blue,"* and at the end is comfortingly seen from a distant perspective.

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)
Finding a distant perspective from which to assess reality can lead even so expert a poet as Wilbur astray, however. In "The Death of a Toad," there is an ordinary suburban accident:  a lawnmower has caught a toad in the grass, now at lawn's edge with a leg fatally torn. The melodious final stanza, beautifully crafted, imagines the toad calling up a twilight vision of "lost Amphibia's emperies" — a descent into bathos unusual in Wilbur. As the poet-critic Randall Jarrell, whose admiration for Wilbur is evident in the New York Times obituary, once groused: "So it was only, after all, an excuse for some poetry."

It's also a cymbal crash, but perhaps Jarrell's complaint reflects the fact that one reader's splash of triumphant percussion may be another's banality indicating that too much of a poem's inspiration depends on the conclusion it's moving toward. This is part and parcel of lyric poetry's anxiety about death. A clear vision may be welcome, but how does it stand beside cloudier poetic visions?

My epigraph for this essay comes from the response of one relatively long-lived artist to a short-lived one. "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix,"* which uses as its theme lyrics to "The Wind Cries Mary": Geoffrey Hill's style is both wide-ranging and knotty, as if the way to proceed is always a problem of focus, a responsibility that must be confronted. Yet, suddenly, here he is on a high plain of forthrightness. The poem ends:

Somewhere the slave is master of his desires
And lords it in great music
And the children dance

Cymbal clash of grace and clarity from an often deliberately graceless poet?  Or a burst of sentimentality, special pleading, even a bid for applause? As in music, concluding cymbals can carry either message, or both.

With Richard Wilbur's measured, elegant muse, the memorable endings almost always have the authentic ring. Thanks, Barbara, wherever you are now, for the insight.


[*In some editions, the two lines before the final refrain in "John Kinsella..." are slightly different. I was unable to find online texts of Ashbery's "The Gazing Grain" and "Voyage in the Blue" and Hill's "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix." They may be found in the volumes "Houseboat Days," "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and "Without Title," respectively.]

    

Monday, October 16, 2017

Hooray for Hollywood: A well-deserved kick in the tailored pants of Harvey Weinstein, with a swipe at Hollywood's code of silence

Hooray for HOllywood! That screwy, ballsy, gooey Hollywood! Where when you venture behind the scene You see Harvey Weinstein (more than you care to): Whether starlet or barmaid, you may feel a star made And report it only if you dare to. Hooray for Hollywood! You'll be soaring if you make him feel good: Your talent's terrific (even if it's sub-par); Say yes, you'll go far; say no, he'll rant. It's just about sex, so suppress that gag reflex And keep your distance from that potted plant! Hooray for Hollywood! That phony, pure baloney Hollywood! Now you may come from Gotham or Australia, He'll try to nail ya before you say "Scram!" or "Ouch!" Don't doubt his moxie, it's orthodoxy: The way to stardom's still the casting couch. Hooray for Hollywood! Don't look for allies in the neighborhood: The culture there is all about protection For his erection, so try to make that monkey look good! Mum's been the word for years, so hide those salty tears: Hooray for Hollywood!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

All-American program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will move to Carmel Sunday

The two American works that make up this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program are freighted with meaning.
Michael Francis has strong convictions about the Copland Third.
Some of it may fairly be described as the interpreter's choice, however.

Whether Copland's Symphony No. 3 (1946) benefits from the comprehensive, yet concise explanation that guest conductor Michael Francis gave it Friday in remarks from the podium to the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience is open to question. The program's other piece, Leonard Bernstein's 1949 Symphony No. 2 ("Age of Anxiety") has explicit reference to the anxiety of individuals in a time of general conflict and peril.

The composer explained at length the meaning of his two-part composition, with an extensive role for solo piano representing the protagonist. Though he excused listeners from needing familiarity with the W.H. Auden poem of the same title that inspired him, Bernstein was characteristically unshy about providing verbal guidance. The 1940 poem is set as World War II began sweeping over the world, and its resonance remained for Bernstein well after the Allied victory, when the Cold War arms race quickly extended the general anxiety.

Copland, on the other hand, provided accessible but quite analytical notes to his four-movement work for its premiere by the Boston Symphony. The struggles of America at war don't enter into his explanation. In Francis' view, the push-pull between the collective welfare and an individual's search for a firm purchase on confusing times is the process through which the Third Symphony proceeds. 

There was nothing false about his perspective, and the performance bore fruit in Francis' terms. Furthermore, though I don't subscribe to his vision of the work, it's quite clear that if you note signs of emotional distress and uncertainty in the music along the way, the triumphant cast of the finale — keyed to the popular "Fanfare for the Common Man" that Copland wrote in 1942  — has the added benefit of seeming hard-earned.


Orli Shaham put a lot of Bernsteinian character into "The Age of Anxiety."
The fanfare is in its full brassy flower early in the fourth movement. It has been foreshadowed by flutes and clarinets, which, by sounding too loud Friday, didn't quite build the intended suspense. When the work is taken as absolute music, the listener is readier to hear the riches of Copland's score in between the two monumental fanfare appearances, the second one of which is based largely on an apotheosis of the symphony's opening material. 

There is lots going on in that movement that recalls the rigorous training in the art of counterpoint and Renaissance polyphony Copland received (along with many other young Americans) in the Paris studio of Nadia Boulanger nearly a century ago. When your ears are set to the wealth of skill and inspiration in the main body of the movement, you don't have to worry that the symphony's conclusion is simply an overstatement. The light emerges at the end, but it is as much a kind of simplification of the musical palette as it is some kind of metaphorical light.

The other movements exhibit Copland at his most characteristic during the fertile era that also produced "Appalachian Spring."  If the work was also criticized initially as "a pale imitation of Prokofiev" (as the program book reminds us), it must have been due to some resemblance between the rhythms and orchestration of Copland's second movement and the Russian composer's "Lieutenant Kije Suite." But that blithe similarity is soon neatly moderated by a characteristic American sort of lyrical episode.

As for the "Age of Anxiey" symphony, it enchanted with a quite soft, interwoven clarinet duet as the Prologue got under way. Orli Shaham caught the introspective mood of the piano's entrance, and the mercurial nature of Bernstein's autobiographical concept was something she connected with throughout. An admirer of the older composer, Bernstein shows his enthusiasm for the angular writing of Copland's "Piano Variations" near the end of Part I. 

The purple passages of the composer's jazz tribute in "The Masque" were brightly executed, with much glorious interaction between the soloist and the percussion section. Rapport between piano and podium seemed airtight. When the strings entered after a long layoff, this music — necessarily connected to its extramusical meaning but easier to take in if you won't worry about all that — became thoroughly convincing, right through to the end.

ISO audiences need more programs like this one — concerts that bring to the fore the best products of musical America in the 20th century.







Friday, October 13, 2017

Beethoven at the summit: Danish String Quartet sketches in a master's development in Ensemble Music Society concert

Writing out of profound deafness with all his sense of sound internalized, it's no wonder that Ludwig van Beethoven set even greater emphasis upon what new vistas were open to his imagination as he composed his late string quartets.
The Danish String Quartet made its  Indiana debut to start Ensemble Music's season. 

"Art demands of us all that we shall not stand still," he said to a friend in explanation of the new ground he explored in his B-flat quartet, op. 130. "You will find a new manner of part-writing, and thank God! there is less lack of imagination than before."

Ensemble Music Society's program annotator, the estimable Nicholas Johnson of Butler University, links this self-assessment to the Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131, with which the Danish String Quartet ended its concert Thursday evening at the Indiana History Center. Whichever of the two masterpieces Beethoven's statement applies to — he said at different times that each was his greatest work in this form — it could very well suit either.

The C-sharp minor quartet filled the entire second half of an outstanding concert. The work is demanding and still feels innovative. The four Danes gave a wonderful account of the sprawling, seven-movement composition.

Its first challenge is to put across the transfiguring music of the opening movement, a slow fugue. Fugues tend to direct the focus on the matching of voices that occur and recur in succession; they usually move at a pretty good clip, making the coordination of fugal conversation fairly straightforward. This piece's Adagio start requires that the impression of unity be sustained and steadily expressive in the long view. The Danish String Quartet achieved this impression without fail. Its phrasing was silken and steady at the predominant soft dynamic level.

The work proceeded with such well-honed insight supported by firm execution. After a suspenseful transition, the first fast movement maintained the group's fully supported phrasing as the dynamics took on more of the typical Beethoven variety, pushing toward the extremes of the spectrum. By the fourth movement, hairpin dynamic turns were adroitly managed, setting up the exuberant rush of the Presto movement, featuring a brisk theme the composer never seems to tire of. The Danes made sure the audience didn't tire of it, either. After a short Adagio, with the ensemble sporting its most glowing, chorale-like tone, the Allegro finale was given astonishingly forceful treatment, never veering out of control, settling down at the very end into slow measures that have more triumph than exhaustion about them.

As violist Asbjørn Nørgaard told the audience from the stage before a note was sounded, Beethoven got his start in the string-quartet medium as a newcomer to Vienna, where the classical model of the string quartet, however formidably established by Haydn and Mozart, was linked by social custom to entertainment music. That did not prevent the young composer from seeing how to individualize his first contributions to the genre: the six quartets of Op. 18.

The Danish String Quartet (other members: violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin) played two of them, starting with No. 2 in G major. Local music lovers had the opportunity to hear this work played just last week by the Indianapolis String Quartet. For all the merits of that performance by a newly constituted group, Thursday evening's showed the clear benefits of a regular ensemble bond. The excellence of the Danes was immediately apparent: the warm blend on long notes in the second movement, with abrupt contrasts in fast music smoothly handled. It was amazing to see that variation in vibrato served the music and confirmed the group's pinpoint intonation: the final chord of the second movement, with all four playing pianissimo, without vibrato, was magical.

In the Scherzo came another revelation: all decent quartets give precise value to rests, but this one had a way of making rests seem as rhythmically alive as the sounded notes. The rhythmic sweep of the entire movement was thus reinforced. In the finale, all dynamic contrasts were immediate and unanimous where indicated.

In No. 3 in in D major (with the violinists changing parts, as with America's Emerson), the contrasts of dreaminess and vigor are substantial, and both the tone and rhythmic acuity of the players were further confirmed. The majestic finale was given the light-hearted spirit the material suggests, but the movement takes on the "orchestral" texture often noted in Brahms' chamber music for strings. After all that coordinated energy, the Danes made the most of the  cute soft ending.

After such an exhibition of superior music-making on superior music, this listener was left considering the still unfathomable nature of genius, particularly that displayed in the C-sharp minor quartet. No response is adequate besides something puckish like: Beethoven — what a great composer! Too bad he isn't better known. That must be what immortality is for.





Wednesday, October 11, 2017

IVCI, Ronen Chamber Ensemble join forces again to launch 2017-18 Laureate Series

The upper size limit of chamber-music ensemble is nine, and on that conventional pinnacle the opening Laureate Series concert
Chin Kim has had a full career since competing with distinction here in 1986.
of the 2017-18 season concluded Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center.

Bohuslav Martinu's Nonet for Wind Quintet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass was the vehicle for maximum display of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble, with 1986 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureate Chin Kim representing the IVCI series, which continues independently from here, as will the Ronen season.

A 60-year-old Korean-American whose eminent teachers have included Josef Gingold, founder of the IVCI, Kim was among the six finalists in the second competition, all designated laureates. On this return visit, he was joined in a scintillating performance of the Martinu by Ronen co-founders David Bellman, clarinet, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman cello, plus Mike Chen, viola; Alistair Howlett, flute; Leonid Sirotkin, oboe; Robert Danforth, French horn, Kelly Swensson, bassoon, and L. Bennett Crantford, double bass.

The ensemble worked smoothly through the lively exchanges in the first movement. The players poked out the score's colorful accents supporting characteristic Czech melodies and dance rhythms. Fischer-Bellman's solo in the Andante movement established the pensive mood and set the course for a series of elegant mini-solos, including oboe, horn, and viola. The gentle subsiding of passionate song near the end was adeptly handled.

The finale, flecked by nostalgic touches that color its rhythmically lively momentum, confirmed the high level of coordination and sensitivity to blending instrumental color that the ensemble had shown from the first.

The concert's other emphasis on the durable Ronen Chamber Ensemble's attractions came at the beginning, with Kim again in the violin chair, and Chen and Fischer-Bellman filling out the string component, for Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F major. The oboist sported a strong tone and suave, sustained phrasing. In the fast music, chiefly concentrated in the finale (Rondeau: Allegro), there were a few slips in his passage work, but otherwise Sirotkin's agility was well-matched to his steady, well-centered sound.

It was in an "off" chord near the end of the first movement that I began to wonder if the guest violinist's intonation was top-drawer. There was much greater opportunity to  test this impression in Schubert's Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D. 934, with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. This expansive piece is in every respect a duo, to begin with, so the partnership would have been more solid if Kim had used the music, instead of treating the work like a bonbon. The players matched their contributions well, nonetheless.

But despite the violinist's lyricism and the flair and thorough knowledge of the piece he exhibited, the tone seemed thin and intonation slips were frequent, mostly on the low side of the pitch. In the virtuoso final section of the piece, despite his perky elan, Kim did not display the highest level of bow control. After intermission, Eugene Ysaye's transcription of Saint-Saens' Caprice on an Etude in Form of a Waltz, op. 52, no. 6, indicated that Kim's artistry is founded on both musical insight and technical aplomb, yet intonation remained a problem and his sense of style could not quite make up for a scrawny tone.

This program's concise violin-piano masterpiece highlighting Kim was Ravel's "Tzigane." Performance of the long unaccompanied opening caught the gypsy exoticism that spurred Ravel to represent it so memorably, but seemed lacking in intensity. After the consistently expert pianist joined in, there was a rawness in the violin playing that may have been an interpretive decision. Yet I think the music cannot help showing off the French composer's elegance; that quality was mostly highlighted by the duo's adept alternation of accelerating and slowing phrases before the whirlwind final measures.

We are used to a higher standard of playing from IVCI laureates in this series, and I earnestly wish that standard will soon be re-established.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

New theater company debuts with the bristling dark comedy "Glengarry Glen Ross"

Shelly Levene pleads for his professional life with John Williamson, his wary boss.
Even in a cutthroat world, trust is common coin, but much of it is counterfeit. It's the default medium of exchange, its value ever fluctuating —  sometimes inflated,  sometimes approaching the vanishing point.

It's the world of the seminal drama "Glengarry Glen Ross," a much-admired play by David Mamet rooted in the workaday 1980s: you relied on phones you didn't carry with you, you were dependent on pieces of paper and chalkboard assessments of your standing in the corporate zero-sum game. In today's milieu of ethical slippery slopes, that slightly remote setting hasn't dated at all. In fact, the counterfeiters sometimes seem to be in charge.

The Chicago real-estate culture of "Glengarry Glen Ross" is hardscrabble in a manner built on illusions of success and upward mobility. It is realized on Indy Fringe Theatre's Basile Stage with startling energy and commitment in a production opening this weekend, directed by Aaron Cleveland and representing the debut of a new company, Fat Turtle Theatre.

The coarse language that courses electrically among the play's all-male work force never loses its charge and rarely dips in voltage. Momentary alliances among the agents are fragile, and the play's central one ends in disaster. Professional lifelines rest upon hoarding information, following up on "leads" and closing deals. Since the deals are rarely constructed to benefit either the customer or even primarily the company, it's every man for himself.

As seen Saturday night, "Glengarry Glen Ross" built its tension grippingly in the first act's three contrasting scenes, each of them a two-man conversation. What the first act proposes, the second disposes. The first act is set in a Chinese restaurant near the office, a place with a minimum of atmosphere (jazz in the background is an odd touch), offering little respite from the bleak office setting that brings all the shady machinations to a head in the finale. In this production, it's entirely fitting that neither set does much more than sketch its environment. Any budgetary considerations are entirely congruent with the drama's focus on the bare bones of manipulation and the ruthless quest for personal advantage. Even cheap visual uplift has no place here.

High-energy agent Richard Roma (Tristan Ross) makes the pitch.
The principal hero-victim of the system is Shelly Levene, portrayed by Doug Powers with tightly wound desperation and easily violated self-esteem. With Ryan Reddick wearing a sour poker face as the office boss Williamson, feeling unremitting pressure from his bosses downtown to keep profits up, the contrast between the let-it-all-hang-out veteran salesman and the supervisor not paid to say too much or be compassionate was striking.

In the second act, Williamson will finally say too much. Gesturing compulsively and finding it difficult to keep wheedling and thundering in balance, Powers' Levene quite rightly doesn't stir much sympathy. And that's just the right note, though to feel for him a little in the final scene is perhaps inevitable.

To me, Mamet's hold on the audience consists largely of appealing to our gawker and voyeur instincts. The play's dark humor rests largely on this unsettling proposition: comedy is our enjoyment of bad things happening to people who deserve them. The most ingenious comical twists are in the language. Years ago, the first time I saw "Glengarry Glen Ross," the interruptions, evasions, and fragmentary, staccato outbursts in the dialogue reminded me of the real-life skulduggery laid out in transcripts of the Nixon Watergate tapes.

Conversation in "Glengarry Glen Ross" has to be taken seriously, but not literally (to borrow the useful distinction that's been made to explain how Donald Trump's base interprets his rants and gaffes). An agent addressed by name says defensively, "You talking to me?" He knows very well he's being talked to; he'd just rather not be. Another agent in another scene asks a colleague if they are talking about a crime or just speaking about it.

That's in the show's funniest scene, involving a peppery agent named Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) dropping a plot upon a
mousy intended accomplice, George Aaronow (Jeff Maess).  They bat the scheme's sleazy particulars back and forth, Moss rat-a-tatting his ideas and pretending that Aaronow's sputtering echoes indicate substantial buy-in. It doesn't take much to appear complicit on a playing field where honesty never even suits up for the game.

At the top end of bluster and rage is Richard Roma, played by Tristan Ross as a grateful protege of Levene's but definitely focused upon the need to be his own man. His gabby cultivation of a hesitant client dining at a neighboring table is the first act's third scene. Rex Riddle trimly plays a man dominated by his wife's skepticism and, in the second act, mustering just enough resistance to compound Roma's troubles.

As a persistent police detective, Jason Page represented well the avenging angel visited upon this demented workplace. He's undeterred in his examination of a crime that has roiled the office, though the character exhibits more patience than the Chicago cop stereotype. But that's part of the deadly beauty of "Glengarry Glen Ross": fate is implacable, and if it sometimes seems patient with us, it's because it knows who's really at the top of that chalkboard.