David Mamet plays have become the go-to vehicles for Hollywood stars taking a turn onstage – this theatre hosted an underwhelming Speed-the-Plow a few years ago, with Lindsay Lohan, for instance. Still, there’s no smack of cynicism in the name above the lights for this revival: Christian Slater is simply superb as Roma, the slickest of salesmen in a hyper-macho estate agent office in Chicago.
It’s a role Al Pacino made his own in the Nineties film version of this 1983 play, but Slater has a sliver-tongued slipperiness of his own. Roma is an amoral monster, out only to make money, with a knack for selling people dreams they can’t possibly afford, and which are almost certainly not what they seem. But Slater floats light as cloud, his philosophical perambulations and devious confidence tricks never seeming nastily manipulative but instead airily intimate, sweetly conspiratorial. The flickering grin on his face when watching the rest of the office cock-fighting reveals how it’s all just a game to him, however, and one he’ll do anything to win.
Feathers are ruffled by the introduction of an ultra-competitive sales contest: bottom of the sales board gets fired, top gets a Cadillac. Various old hands at the firm, on losing streaks and only given hopeless leads to work with, aren’t happy; the first half sees circling, wheeling conversations take place in a nearby Chinese restaurant, as they consider doing a vengeful inside job on the office.
Mamet’s bitingly funny, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue – which often seems to say nothing but in which meaning lurks, coiled and sharp as barbed wire – can take some tuning in to. Parts of the first half, under Sam Yates direction, haven’t quite got there; the rhythms don’t sound real.
But things heat up considerably in a second half where dreams are crushed, lies are flung, and screws are tightened. A famously expletive-ridden play, the cast manage to find scores of different inflections, and laughs, within the humble ‘fuck’.
Stanley Townsend, who initially seems too lugubrious for the rat-at-tat chat, wallows marvellously in his pleasure at making a big sale as Shelley Levene, and then joins Roma in a deliciously deft dance of deception with a client. Robert Glenister spits and hisses with rage like water droplets in a pan of fat, while Kris Marshall plays against type as the uptight, inscrutable office managers.
Still, given how short the play is, it would be much improved without an interval; you’ve only sat for half an hour when the lights go back up. Presumably this was to satisfy the twin desires of completely overhauling Chiara Stephenson’s hyper-naturalistic sets, and selling more champagne to city boy fans, but the show would be better served by maintaining a relentless momentum.
As a revival, Glengarry Glen Ross seems depressingly pertinent – almost 35 years on, and such toxic masculinity still oozes through our society, a society still motored by such self-serving individualism. Harvey Weinstein, Paradise Papers, you don’t need me to spell it out.
And yet… maybe rather than good timing, it’s actually bad timing. Even if it an efficacious modern classic, I’m not sure we really need to see more casually cruel, casually racist, shamelessly venal macho men strut and fret their hour-forty-five upon the stage right now. At this precise moment, I’d rather hear no more from the lot of them.
‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ until 3 February (playhousetheatrelondon.com)