Sunday, April 5, 2009

A(lways) B(e) C(urrent)

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet at soulpepper, April 2 - May 9, 2009

Last Christmas I bought R an eight play subscription to soulpepper. If you follow this blog you may remember R's uneasiness with attending performances at Stratford, not because of the quality of the productions or the types of plays produced but because the advanced age of the average theatre goer reminded him of, and I'm quoting ... "death".

Soooo ... I was very encouraged by his enthusiasm for soulpepper productions; hence, splurging on the subscription. This is the second play in the 2009 series. Tom Stoppard's Travesties which we saw in February was wonderful. I remain in awe of Stoppard and his talent.

David Mamet is a personal favourite of mine but this production of Glengarry left me a bit cold and I couldn't really put my finger on why until R and I were driving back home and he expressed his thoughts on it. I had never seen the play but remember the film well. Perhaps the play lacked the acerbic vitality of the Blake character (Alec Baldwin) who famously delivers his riveting Always Be Closing speech. Mamet wrote this role into the film just for Baldwin and he is phenomenal.

The play is billed as a "scorching examination of Reagan-era America" involving four real estate salesman clawing, scrambling, lying and cheating to make sales in order to win a Cadillac in 1983. Likely soulpepper thought it would be timely in this climate of economic chaos and excoriation of financial greed.

Mamet's realistic and profane dialogue got our attention and respect in the 70s and 80s - it was honest, raw and fascinating to watch and hear. But are we inured to profanity in the theatre now? The rapid fire patter and expletives felt dated and canned. It no longer felt current or shocking to me. Albert Schultz as the shark-like alpha male Ricky Roma, Eric Peterson as the hapless Shelley Levene lured into robbing the office for leads by the manipulative Dave Moss (Michael Simpson) after he attempts to con the weak-willed George Aaronow (William Webster) - even these bombastic roles left me cold. The fates of the four salesmen is oddly unmoving even though the performances were fairly solid.

The play felt so flat. Is it the economic climate that has soured us on salesmen of this type? Not just a distaste but an aversion even for the so-called "losers" who are exploited by the system too? Roma, Moss, Levene, Aaronow - they are all familiar types to us now.

Schultz, as the Founding Artistic Director, general wunderkind and a key fundraiser for the theatre, often lands plum roles such as Ricky Roma or Mac the Knife in 2007 but I fear he lacks the machismo to pull these roles off. Shouting and gesticulating and throwing your weight around won't suffice. I felt he was more effective as the melancholic Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya last year.

Likewise with Eric Peterson's manic antics as the underperforming, past-it Shelley Levene, no longer "The Machine" he once was as a salesman. Michael Simpson, too, grates as the conniving Moss. I'm not saying that these abrasive, over the top types don't exist but it takes more than bravado and posturing to portray them with sensitivity and believability.

More effective and moving, I think, is William Webster as Aaronow, the last man on the sales totem pole, with his quiet nervous tics and sad sack demeanour.

The set is carefully and artfully constructed by Set Designer Ken MacDonald. Divided into two acts, one set in a Chinese restaurant in stark red and black and the other in the ransacked real estate sales office, the effect is striking.

soulpepper is always worth exploring ... I am always intrigued by its productions and I am looking forward to the rest of the year. Next up: Loot by Joe Orton in June.

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