In one-and-twenty years, the expletive has lost its edge (from frigging overuse), but the play, set in the shark tank of Chicago real estate, retains its bite. Now, more clearly than before, one realizes that the dirtiest words that pass between these snarling conmen/salesmen, the most hateful and hurtful daggers-to-the-heart, are a staple that has carried over from sand box days—"I never liked you!"—and here it passes back and forth more than once. David Mamet, the acknowledged expert at expletives, can somehow still make that simple line sting and sing.
A cast of seven—seven very angry men, under Joe Mantello's pile driving direction—did what they could with the material at hand, which is to say they did everything but swing from the florescent lighting. You could almost hear the audience getting off on the acting.
At least you could on opening night where that magnificent seven was pretty much found guilty by a jury of their peers of brilliant ensemble work. The starry assemblage seemed like an emergency session of Actors' Equity, so packed was the house with appreciative practitioners of the acting art. All rose at once at the end in what seemed (even if you knock off a notch or two for the natural effusiveness of first nighters) a sincere salute.
Alphabetically in attendance were Jane Atkinson (Enchanted April), Bob Balaban (Romance), Chris Bauer (A Streetcar Named Desire), Joy Behar ("The View"), Mark Blum (Twelve Angry Men and The Best Man), Christian Borle (Spamalot), Bobby Cannavale (Hurlyburly), Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent), John Ellison Conlee (The Constant Wife), Billy Crudup (The Pillowman), Michael Cumpsty (Democracy and The Constant Wife), Dagmara Dominczyk (Enchanted April), Fran Drescher ("The Nanny"), Adam Duritz (of Counting Crows), Christine Ebersole (Steel Magnolias), Eden Espinoza (Brooklyn: The Musical), Edie Falco ('night, Mother), Tina Fey (Mean Girls), Sutton Foster (Little Women), Jeff Goldblum (The Pillowman), John Benjamin Hickey (Cabaret), Richard Kind (The Producers), Famke Janssen (X-Men I-III), Kristen Johnston (The Baltimore Waltz and Aunt Dan and Lemon), Cherry Jones (Doubt), Catherine Kellner (Hurlyburly), Clea Lewis ("Ellen"), Patti LuPone (The Little Foxes and Passion of late), Julianna Margulies ("ER" and Ten Unknowns), Gretchen Mol (The Shape of Things), Brian O'Byrne (Doubt), Amanda Peet (This Is How It Goes), Martha Plimpton (The False Servant), Parker Posey (Hurlyburly), Phylicia Rashad (A Raisin in the Sun and Gem of the Ocean), Ron Rifkin (The Paris Letter), Sam Rockwell (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot), Mercedes Ruehl (Woman Before a Glass), Horatio Sans ("Saturday Night Live"), Annabella Sciorra (True Love), Douglas Sills (Moonlight and Magnolias), Frances Sternhagen (Steel Magnolias), Richard Thomas (Democracy), and Rachel York (Dessa Rose).
Auxiliary, but essential, glitter included Terrence McNally (Tony winning author of Love! Valour! Compassion and Master Class), Richard Adler (composer of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!), Jon Robin Baitz (author of The Paris Letter), Camp director Todd Graff and camp playwright-actor Charles Busch, and such authorities in the field as real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran and Prudential CEO Dorothy Herman. With almost all of the above, there was at least one degree of separation between them and either playwright Mamet, director Mantello or producer Jeffrey Richards. For the latter, the revival represented something of a promotion (maybe self-promotion is the word); lead producer this time around, he was publicist for the original production, which was brought to Broadway by Elliot Martin and The Shuberts. "I think this was one of the most difficult shows to promote because nobody knew what the [aforementioned bleep] the title meant," he recalled. "Somebody in the press thought it was a riff on Macbeth." [The title refers to two exotically named seedy little subdivisions which the hucksters are shillings.]
Did I neglect to mention that all this is a comedy? An abrasive, bruising one sometimes drawing blood, but a comedy all the same, fiercely funny in its detailed observations of the male of the species fighting for survival and dominance in a contemporary jungle.
The cast comes out of the chute a good 90 mph, two by two, in a rapid-fire succession of three short scenes, set in a dimly lit Chinese restaurant, that constitute Act I. Mostly, these scenes are monologues, rising and falling like emotional arias, while the person being played to listens aggressively and makes the appropriate yea-or-nay cursory responses.
In order of their appearances/nonappearances are Shelly Levene (Alan Alda), a defanged old tiger clawing his way back in the running by making a hard-bargain with the office manager, John Williamson (Frederick Weller), for some hot leads; David Moss (Gordon Clapp of "NYPD Blue," the Broadway debutante of the cast behaving like a well-seasoned veteran), conning the office ineffectual, George Aaronow (Jeffrey Tambor), into stealing those leads; and, last but definitely not least, Richard Roma (Liev Schreiber), the ferocious top-dog on the selling chart smooth-talking a fresh victim, James Lingk (played almost catatonically by a grayed, bespectacled, completely unrecognizable Tom Wopat). Act II is chaotically interactive as the seventh member of the team, Jordan Lage, an inspector, is called in to investigate an office robbery.
The original Broadway cast had no one who was a star at the time—Robert Prosky, Mike Nussbaum, James Tolkan, the late J.T. Walsh, Lane Smith, Jack Wallace and Joe Mantegna—so the two who were nominated (Prosky and Mantegna) arm-wrestled in the Featured Actor category, with Mantegna emerging the victor with a dazzling flash-and-dash display. Much of that goes with the character of Richie Roma, which was the part of preference in an informal poll taken of the opening night audience. Christian Slater, Jeff Goldblum and Steve Martin didn't hesitate a beat. Bob Saget said he'd be ready for Shelly Levine in another 20 or 30 years. Matthew Broderick thought he needed more seasoning before he could decide on any role. (And he's getting plenty of seasoning these days on the film of The Producers: "We finish the film in three weeks. Can't wait. Can't wait. I just did `I Want To Be a Producer,' about 65 times a day for three days. I got beat up, but I had a lot of fun." David Marshall Grant said he'd "like to play a member of the audience, again."
The grounded and WASP-ish Patrick Wilson harbored no Roma illusions, opting realistically for the Williamson role, roughly the real-estate world's equivalent to the barely-wet-behind-the-ears Second Lieu-ie role in old war movies. But the work he admired most was Alda's. "Just awesome," he said. "Every time you watch Alan Alda work, you always care about his characters whatever he's doing, from The Aviator to whatever. And that's kinda all you want, I think, as an actor. He always has such heart."
Alda confessed that the character he's playing rarely comes first with him: "I always think about the play first, and this is a great play, one of the great American plays and one of the great world plays. To have a chance to work in this play, to do this language, is so great. It's thrilling to do, but it's also very difficult, which is one of the things that makes it fun because, if you can solve this, you wind up feeling pretty good about yourself."
Finite timing is mandatory for Mamet, he said. "I don't think anybody finds it easy to get into the rhythm of Mamet. [W. H.] Bill Macy, who has done a lot of Mamet, said, `Every actor who tries to simply learn the words in a Mamet play eventually wants to commit suicide.' It's not easy, and learning the words is always the easiest part of a play, but this is very, very difficult. There are many repetitions. You have to figure out why the repetitions occur, why the pauses occur. Once you understand that—once you do it and once the whole company is doing it and doing it accurately—you come across meanings that you couldn't have gotten any other way. You never understand what the play is really all about until everybody is doing it right." The elusive Mamet, who attended the opening with his actress-wife Rebecca Pidgeon and declared the revival `a spectacular production,' writes in the rhythm of life like—much like—the song by that name from Sweet Charity, which will officially close the season on May 4. Glengarry Glen Ross provided its last dramatic jolt, but director Mantello admitted that this was musically arrived at: "We worked on it just like we work on any play, but, in addition to that, we worked on it like it was a piece of music," he said. "I think that Mamet gives you so many clues. More than clues, it's like a musical score, and, if you adhere to what he says, you're home safe."
Is it any wonder, then, that Mark Schoenfeld, composer of Brooklyn: The Musical at the Plymouth next door, was drawn into the opening-night commotion. "It's music, actually," he decreed. "Rhythm is part of its power. You walk away, and you still hear the rhythm." Recording executive Bill Rosenfield heard it, too. "It's an album," he agreed giddily. "I'm sure it's an album! You'll be seeing 50,000 of them tomorrow! It's already pressed!"