Death of a Salesman

David Mamet's love of the rhythms of American speech is the hallmark of his work. His people speak in a repetitive, rat-a-tat cadence, always overlapping and usually taking two conversational steps backward for each step forward. Mamet's is a language filled with expletives -- there are reportedly more than a hundred uses of the word "fuck" in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, currently stuttering its way across the Theatrescape stage -- a language that's deeply emotional and dark and uniquely Mamet's own.

It's this inimitable use of language that makes a Mamet play a wonderful thing, and also the very thing that can annihilate it. Because Mamet's words are meant to mock the natural rhythm of speech, and because they're so very difficult to read properly, a lesser performer can make mincemeat of the playwright's long, teetering dialogues. Handled by such a performer, Mamet's characters begin to sound like, well, David Mamet characters.

Which is the sad case with Theatrescape's Glengarry Glen Ross, a more-than-slightly off-kilter reading of an inarguably difficult play. Because Glengarry Glen Ross -- indeed, most all of Mamet's plays and films -- is about the way that people talk to one another, and because only a few of director Christopher Mascarelli's cast members are up to the challenge of re-creating Mamet's oddball dialogue.

Steven J. Scally plays a mercurial middle-management loafer who's playing baby sitter to three struggling Chicago real estate agents, all employed at the same office and at different stages of their careers. There's Shelly "The Machine" Levene (Marty Berger), a former hotshot who, in his dotage, is reduced to groveling for third-rate listings. And Dave Moss (Scott Dillon), a big deal in small-time property sales whose criminal mind is fueled by his outsize ego. George Aaranow (Bruce Halperin) is a panicky patsy who may or may not be behind the burglary that Act Two is built around. And then there's Richard Roma, an unctuous peddler of property who'll say anything to anyone to get him to sign on the dotted line. He's the Count Dracula of closing costs, a dark cartoon of manhood whose opening monologue is an amazingly long-winded cogitation on morals and the meaning of life and the smell of a train compartment that goes everywhere and no place at all and that, as read by John Sankovich, is the best thing about this production.

Despite the best efforts of the supporting players, only Sankovich and Scally are up to the challenge of Mamet's headlong rush of words. Sankovich is a storm of hardy histrionics, wagging his elegantly arched eyebrows and spewing Mamet's familiar stylistic tics (repetitions, interruptions, the quizzical ellipsis after every statement) like a villainous choirmaster. If Sankovich is a storm, then Scally -- at least until his amazing eruption in Act Two -- is the eye of that storm, calmly conveying a deep disdain for the men who surround him.

Cleverly directed by Christopher Mascarelli, the program benefits from the closed, cramped quarters of the tiny Space Theatre. Ultimately, though, the limited talents of the supporting players leave us more agitated by what we see than involved in it. Thus, Mamet's cautionary tale of the power of money and the weakness of men is merely unnerving, and only sometimes entertaining.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela