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.