Highlands and Lowlands

It may feel set in a different era, but ACT's Glengarry Glen Ross still resonates, with fortunes that rise and fall like stock prices

This time last year, Marco Barricelli played Oscar Wilde in ACT's premiere of The Invention of Love. He wore purple velvet and minced around the stage with a lily. Now, in the same theater, he's the puff-chested, testosterone-poisoned lead salesman in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Instead of velvet he wears a dark power suit with a blood-red hanky and tie, and hectors a total stranger with pompous Nietzschean phrases about middle-class morality and heaven and hell as a preface to selling him real estate. It's a marvelous performance -- less megalomaniacal than Al Pacino's in the film version, but equally solid -- and it drives a brief and potent show.

The story is simple. Four small-time salesmen compete like sharks to sell chunks of Florida land. Their bosses have promised a Cadillac to the man who brings in the most money and steak knives to the guy who comes in second; third place gets fired. (Fourth place isn't even mentioned.) The movie spells this contest out, but the play leaves it as veiled and implicit as the darkest Mamet conspiracy. What we see is four harried, aggressive men bucking for position on a chalkboard and crowing about winning some car. They obsess about "leads," or personal information on potential buyers. The hot leads -- basically a pack of index cards -- sit all but untouched in their manager's office, and the first scene has a veteran salesman, Shelly Levene, trying to climb out of a slump by haggling with the boss to give him two of those lousy cards.

Tony Amendola, in an off-the-rack suit, with a graying mustache and receding hairline, does a note-perfect job as a pressure-cooked Jewish salesman, the kind of guy Philip Roth's heroes always have for a father. He sits with his boss, Williamson, under a glowing red paper lamp in a Chinese restaurant. "Don't look at the board," he yells, meaning the office chalkboard where Levene's name is last, "look at me! Shelly Levene!" -- and then he snaps, claps, and smiles, in a sad, melodramatic effort to seem with it, ready to roll. But it doesn't work. Levene can't even sell his case to the boss.

Death of a Salesman: Tony Amendola is note-perfect, while Rod Gnapp is without energy.
Kevin Berne
Death of a Salesman: Tony Amendola is note-perfect, while Rod Gnapp is without energy.

Details

Written by David Mamet. Produced by the American Conservatory Theater. Scenery by Loy Arcenas. Through Feb. 4 at the Tickets are $15-61; call 749-2228.
Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F.

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Two other salesmen, sitting in another booth, talk about stealing the leads. More accurately, a guy named Dave Moss tries to sell a guy named George Aaronow on the idea of stealing them. "Dave?" says Aaronow, light dawning. "You want me to break into the office tonight and steal the leads?" "Yes." When Aaronow resists, Moss blackmails him. Aaronow is the only man onstage with a speck of conscience, and Matt Gottlieb plays him nicely as a shambling, doubt-clouded loser, almost willing prey within this school of predators.

Glengarry isn't an old play -- it premiered in 1983 -- but a few world events have left it marooned, superficially, in another time. These days, Mamet's compromised salesmen might be multilevel marketers looking for updated, cross-indexed demographic information on the Web -- or for fresh e-mail lists to spam -- instead of for leads. Their real estate prices would also run in the millions, not the thousands. Director Les Waters lets all that go. The sets by Loy Arcenas evoke the early '80s with metal filing cabinets, exposed heating ducts, and a plastic water cooler in the office, and smoked glass and red vinyl in the Chinese restaurant. A pre-digital gloom clings to the whole production. It's almost a historical set piece. It works because the script hasn't dated; Mamet focused his dramatic attention on his characters' fortunes, which rise and fall like stock prices.

Not everything's perfect. Rod Gnapp, as Williamson, starts the play with no energy; what should be a taut piece of dialogue with Levene instead feels one-sided. John Apicella seems uncomfortable as Moss, the guy who plots an office break-in. His high voice sometimes finds new possibilities for Mamet's language; sometimes it just lacks conviction. And Brian Keith Russell plays the detective, Baylen, on a single note of pure aggression. He fills the role but doesn't make it interesting.

Redeeming these flaws is Barricelli's performance as Roma, opposite James Carpenter as the hapless chump James Lingk. Poor Lingk listens to Roma's philosophizing and tries to look casual in his rumpled suit, sipping a cocktail, fidgeting, never saying a word, until Roma pulls out a pamphlet on the "Glengarry Highlands" -- a housing estate -- and with a flourish of his pinky-ringed hand persuades Lingk to part with his savings. It's an excellent scene. Carpenter keeps a resigned, underdog look on his face all the way through, even in the second act, when Lingk knows he's being swindled, and Barricelli never lets Roma's egotism flag, even in the wreckage of his slick, self-confident spiel.

This Roma character may seem like the complete opposite of Oscar Wilde, but at some level Barricelli must have tapped a similar vein to play them. Both men strut like peacocks. Both have diabolical reserves of ego. "I had brilliancy, daring," says Wilde in Invention of Love. "I took charge of my own myth." Roma does, too, even if he lacks the vocabulary to say so, and we feel a glimmer of sympathy when he takes a fall.

 
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