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Review of Glengarry Glen Ross

Al Pacino as Levene didn't really work--and the production kept being delayed in its opening.


Addenda:  Pacino’s Glengarry in Preview, 14 November, 2012.

Al Pacino’s new Glengarry Glenn Ross was supposed to open this week after two weeks of previews. But Daniel Sullivan director has put off the official opening for an extra month because there are problems. The play continues in previews for that period, and is a sellout anyway because of the star.

Problems stem from Al Pacino now playing Shelly Levene. In the opening scene, he is playing slowly, inaudibly and also with all the Pacino mannerisms: rubbing his forehead incessantly—though I couldn’t figure out if this occurred at certain moments because there seemed to be little interaction with David Harbour as Williamson. Pacino is playing Shelly as an extremely desperate, pressured man who is at his wit’s end. This might be a legitimate interpretation, but in this incarnation it destroys the rhythm of the scene. So Vincent Gardenia in the original production in 1984 (replacing Robert Prosky who left early for Hill Street Blues) made this work by playing Levene as angry, forceful—a pushy salesman. In fact, he’s so high pressure that I’d think that someone who couldn’t be pushed would either fight back or leave. (The less said about Jack Lemmon’s sad sack loser Levene from the 1992 film version the better.) More recently, Alan Alda played a brilliant Levene who was lean, angular, kind of fox-like—but a fast talking salesman who tries to get things past Williamson. Both Gardenia and Alda got lots of laughs in their futility in trying to convince Williamson. But Pacino mostly underplayed vocally making it hard to hear or to know what he’s doing, so the audience didn’t really get it. It is also a problem that he still doesn’t have all the lines down, and puts in his own filler—losing the careful crafting of the scene.

As a result, the other actors are forced to try to get the audience more engaged by throwing more and more energy into the play—so there’s a lot of screaming ‘Fuck you’ that does get laughs from the audience. But Harbour’s Williamson is very forceful, much more in charge than any one I’ve seen before—so instead of a cool, detached bureaucrat, this is an ardent, fiery boss.

The second scene works better than the first because John C. McGinley as Moss is equally forceful. Instead of a conniving salesman, he’s dressed impeccably and self-confident while Richard Schiff as Aaronow is schlumpy, out of coat, tie down. But their scene works because lines are spoken over lines with fast exchanges which get more laughs played at the speed of a comedy (Mamet described the play as a ‘Gang Comedy’). The third scene with Bobby Cannavale as Roma worked as well—a third impeccably dressed man talking to another beaten down fellow, Jeremy Shamos as Lingk.

Theoretically, Pacino’s Levine is a legitimate interpretation—as beaten down and desperate, looking like he needs a shave in contrast to the dapper Moss and especially Roma (who also, in contrast to the others, is darker skinned, while they all look pale—as if he’s the one who’s actually been to Florida). But in terms of the dynamic of the play as a whole, it drags down the energy of the first scene. And the other actors are consequently being a little too forceful, trying too hard to win back the audience.

Some overacting is all the more evident in the second act when each one gets a chance to chew scenery. Pacino does his Nyborg-selling story directly facing the audience as Roma delights in it as he mimes eating the crumb cake and holding out the pen—selling the audience too. The others have explosive moments when they emerge from the office with Baylen. McGinley explodes with fury and F-bombs as he comes out (getting big laughs from the audience), Schiff kicks the desk three times, slams his briefcase, and even Roma loses his cool. All of this sets Levene apart as the one who’s not in fury—as Roma says only the thief can face the police without being nervous. And Williamson is in high dudgeon because his office has been trashed. It’s all a little too high energy, as if to make up for the low energy of the first scene.

What isn’t quite working yet is the interaction of the actors. That may come in time as they work together. But no scene has the speed, quick back and forth, and then sudden stopping of the Moss/Aaronow Scene Two where the rhythm works best. Levene and Roma don’t quite synchronize on their interplay to dupe Lingk where it might best emerge.

In Act Two, for example, Joe Mantegna as Roma in 1984 was really concerned about Aaronow and asks how he’s doing with real concern. When George laments, despite Roma’s consolation, ‘I’m not fucking good’ Mantegna showed real sympathy: ‘Fuck that shit, George. You’re a, hey, you had a bad month. You’re a good man, George. (‘I am?’) You hit a bad streak. We’ve all . . .’ Similarly, Mantegna’s concern for Levene seems real and he rebukes Moss for his indifference to the story of the sale: “Your pal closes, all that comes out of your mouth is bile, how fucked up you are…” But in this cast, there’s none of that concern for the other, or recognition of what a tenuous thing the life of a salesman is.

Levene repeats over and over in his story of the Nyborgs, “You have to believe in yourself.” The motto is both that of the salesmen, who’s self-confidence is so fragile as Pacino’s in the first scene, and Aaronow’s later. In this production what did become clear, partly due to the staging of the Nyborg story, is that there are connections between Roma’s sales pitch to Lingk in Act One and Leven’s to the Nyborgs in Act Two. Both make the investment in real estate an indication of self-confidence, rather than taking refuge in feeling safe and taking no risks, and both argue that one must live in the “now” rather than worry about past or future. Both pitches work perfectly, and this production makes more clear to me how connected they are.

The deeper theme of the play, the way the whole system crushes those inside and makes them such desperate men, is not as clear. Instead, the ending goes for high tragedy, as Pacino sits in his chair, open mouthed, as Williamson goes to tell Baylen. Roma speaks to him, but he is in too much shock to respond, and finally stands, when called, but is clearly a destroyed tragic hero, beaten down, shoulders slumped, facing the audience and unable to move to the door upstage where the detective awaited him. Once he finally exits, Cannavale as Roma just stares back at the door, as if realizing what just happened and why Levene is so crushed. The effect makes this the tragedy of Levene rather than that of the oppressive capitalistic system that dehumanizes everyone. But this staging is overdone and drowns out the last line, Aaronow’s thematic key line, “Oh God, I hate this job.”

There is no telling how this production will work when it emerges from. In Britain when reviewers examine Royal Shakespeare productions, they know they will play for months if not years, and so they give some leeway to a production and speculate on how it might grow and develop. Perhaps we should learn the same skills here, since out of town fine-tuning is no longer done. The muffled tones of Pacino and Schiff at the start of their first scenes make it impossible to hear all the lines, as does Cannavale’s later semi-whispering to Lingk in the office. Whatever effect they are trying for was lost on my brother whom I took to his first Broadway play in years, and he was frustrated in losing the lines.

Andrew Harris (Broadway Theatre. London: Routledge, 1994) says that Mamet’s earlier American Buffalo was tweaked by Ulu Grosbard for its first (1977) Broadway production—giving more focus to Teach played by Robert Duvall. Later Pacino played Teach for three years in New York and London, 1980-82, because it gave such a star turn. It feels as if the same thing is happening to Glengarry Glen Ross. Perhaps this approach will eventually work. It may just take more time.

David K. Sauer

Spring Hill College