THEATRE / Brute strength: Paul Taylor on David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at the Donmar Warehouse

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The Independent Culture
Would a group of real- life real estate salesmen enjoy an outing to Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's ruthless take on their paranoid, cut- throat world of macho bluff, wall-to-wall ulcers and the peddling of phoney dreams? I think they would, rather like those parties of merchant bankers who packed out Serious Money. For Mamet's attitude to these men is compellingly ambivalent. He may view them with brutal clarity, but he also has a more than sneaking admiration for their fable-spinning theatricality and driven energy, and he clearly gets a terrific buzz from their profane riffs of blustering tough-talk.

A more suggestive parallel than with any of Mamet's fellow American dramatists would be with Ben Jonson, who also wavers between contempt and celebration when portraying confidence tricksters in The Alchemist. That comedy was memorably staged a couple of seasons back by Sam Mendes, who is the director of this powerful revival of Glengarry. It must have been excellent training.

Apart from an utterly mesmeric performance by Al Pacino, the recent film of this play was just a lengthy admission that you damage its essence if you remove it from the theatre. So it may seem paradoxical to praise Mendes for an effect in the first two scenes, set in a Chinese restaurant, that is quasi-cinematic. As successive pairs of salesmen engage in intense conversation, they and their table are rotated slowly on a central revolve. It creepily reinforces the sense that they are being observed like specimens.

One of the misjudgements of the film is to add a laborious scene at the start explaining the terms of the new, inhuman sales competition, whereas one of the glories of the play is that it pitches you right in with three fragmented scenes that assume a familiarity that you have, in fact, to acquire on the hop. Mendes paces the material with a sort of laconic violence, from the startling rise of the scrim at the start, to the sinister, finger-clicking percussion between scenes that is brilliantly in tune with the play's story-telling manner.

The production, though superbly cast, doesn't get as many laughs as it might. To have Ricky Roma (fine Ron Cook), the flashiest of the salesmen, and Lingk, the dupe he cons with his snake- charmer spiel, conversing from separate tables destroys the illusion of intimacy you need for the sudden revelation that they have only just met ('My name is Richard Roma, what's yours?') to register as a delicious joke. Placing them apart also weakens the impression that Roma's sales pitch is a kind of sexual seduction of this stranger.

With his 'Corrupt, moi?' gestures, Anthony O'Donnell is wonderfully funny as the self-righteously manipulative Moss, and Mendes keeps everything hard-edged. For example, James Bolam, as dilapidated Shelly Levene, a former star salesman now down on his luck, valuably rids the part of the pathos Jack Lemmon coated it with in the film. Presenting the man in all his seedy, unlovable desperation, Bolam's Levene doesn't make false bids for sympathy. Again unlike Lemmon, Bolam keeps you guessing about his responsibility for the robbery until the last possible moment. Impressively uningratiating, like the production.

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(Photograph omitted)