After several years of pandemic-induced rescheduling, Post Productions will finally stage David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross for a three-week (eight performance) run beginning 14 April 2023. Although the play was written forty years ago audiences will find it hasn’t lost any of its power, relevance, and biting satire. It might sound depressing, but this play may be more relevant now then it was way back then.
Glengarry Glen Ross is set in Chicago circa 1984, as the world of honour and loyalty that defined working-class America is sabotaged and murdered by the vicious no-limits unregulated capitalism of the Reaganite era. Real estate agents at a small company find themselves in desperate straights as management imposes a sales contest which allows for only two winners who get to keep their jobs – and losers who will be fired. Thus begins a frenzied two-day whirlwind of thievery, sabotage, and manipulation full of unexpected twists and vivid characters.
The central figure in this tragicomic tale is Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Joey Ouellette), a veteran real estate agent who was once the top salesman in his field, the hero junior agents strived to be, and an example of how a man could become successful through hard work, perseverance, honour, intelligence, and integrity. This is the American dream, isn’t it? This is the selling point of modern democracies: you don’t have to be trapped in the social class or the income bracket into which you were born – if you apply yourself you can rise through the social strata as a Self-Made Man.
Now we all know that anyone who rises to the top can’t stay there. Eventually they stumble and slide down the snakes, watching the ladders they climbed to reach the apex shatter into pieces as they fall. This is where Shelley is now and he can’t really bring himself to believe it. He clings to superstitions, like a belief in “winning streaks” and “losing streaks” – and the mysterious power of luck to keep himself from believing that he did this to himself. To make matters worse, his daughter is deftly ill, and he needs to make a lot more money to pay her medical bills. His old friend and colleague George Aaronow (Mark Lefebvre) is in a similar mess. The stresses caused by the rapid changes in their industry have turned him into an anxious stammering wreck. Like Levene, he struggles to figure out how this could have happened to him and he believes there must be some hope to which he can cling. And it is this state of desperation in which the old guard find themselves that makes them vulnerable to exploitation by younger and more ruthless salesmen.
While Levene and Aaronow fight to keep their jobs, up-and-comers Ricky Roma (Michael K. Potter) and Dave Moss (Gregory Girty) are riding high, bringing in thousands more per month than Levene and Aaronow have seen in years. They’re not new to the real estate game, as both are middle-aged, but they’re young enough to have adapted to the zero-sum economic policies of the 1980s. Roma is a confident and observant man who knows he can get away with anything at the moment because he’s the top salesman. His success has led him, perhaps, to become arrogant – although he recognizes that he owes at least some of his success to the fact that he was mentored years ago by Levene. Moss is a brash, manipulative, and bitter man who believes he’s being shafted by everyone around him despite the success he enjoys because he could always be more successful.
As the story begins, Roma and Moss are at the top of the new sales contest, both of them within reach of not only winning the Cadillac promised to the top salesman, but also assured that at the end of the month they will keep their jobs. In fact, only the top two salesmen can keep their jobs, which means Levene and Aaronow know they will probably be unemployed by the end of the week. As you might expect, this situation has created a lot of stress at this real estate company – which is precisely what ultracompetitive zero-sum extreme forms of capitalism do to people. The approach to economics that seeped in during Reagan’s first term is by now in 2023 so much the norm that we forget the world of work, the world of economics, wasn’t always this destructive (just a little less destructive). We forget there have been and can be better ways to handle trade. Mamet saw forty years ago the world that we take as the norm now: a world in which honour and loyalty and compassion are scorned as weaknesses, a world where cutthroat practices and exploitation are lauded as not only intelligent strategy but sometimes even the “right” thing to do. In American Buffalo Mamet explored how this kind of system destroys human relationships, even fundamentally necessary relationships like friendship. In Glengarry Glen Ross he takes this one step further to show us a world in which extreme capitalism, the cult of greed, destroys the lives of everyone who works within it. It reduces people to something less than human, beings that exist only to sell enough to stay alive so they can exploit others who are trying to do the same thing to them.
This would be bad enough, certainly, but Mamet doesn’t want things to be that simple. Glengarry Glen Ross is also a commentary on – I would say a satire of – what we now call toxic masculinity. In the early 1980s this was just known as masculinity, and people stopped recognizing that there were forms of masculinity that weren’t dependent on constantly seeking power over others, inflating your strengths so others can’t see your weaknesses, competing with others even when there’s nothing to win, and equating the domination of others with “success” or “winning”. Since 2014 the world has seen the harrowing growth and mainstreaming of toxic masculinity amongst the various groups that are identified as the Far Right, Incels, neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, the Ku Klux Klan, and the many others who can be collected into a bewildering Venn diagram of hatred and misery. These are the descendants of noxious groups from previous decades – the Moral Majority, the Tea Party, etc. – that somehow managed to amass followers but never had the ability to fully out themselves to the mainstream until the presidency of Donald Trump presented them with a validation.
Toxic masculinity is all the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross know. They grew up learning that this is what it means to be a man. And like those who embody toxic masculinity today, there are hefty doses of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia added to the mix. For these characters, such prejudices aren’t necessarily intended as hateful. It’s “benevolent bigotry”. They learned it from their families and friends and neighbours, from television and movies and books, from the cultural miasma that nourished them. It’s an unconscious part of how they talk and how they think. But as we know now, whether there’s any hate behind an act of prejudice is beside the point; what matters is the harm it causes.
So, Mamet has created a simulation, an artful representation of what happens when the cult of capitalism intertwines with toxic masculinity. It creates a lot of suffering. It erodes bonds. It makes people incapable of forming sincere relationships – maybe even incapable of uttering sincere sentences. It creates conditions that force most people to lose. And those same conditions guarantee that the few winners who rise to the top lose their souls along the way.
It’s also funny. Mamet, being a master playwright, isn’t interested in presenting us with a monotonous or tedious exercise in tragedy in which the same notes are hit over and over again. He creates moments of authentic human humour, humour that comes from the ways in which human beings awkwardly try to interact with those they can’t really understand, however much they might want to. The script is full of twists and turns. Questions are raised but Mamet leaves it up to the audience to decide whether they’re answered. It’s a play that makes you feel and makes you think, entertains you at every moment, and leaves you wondering whether you’ve just woken up from a nightmarish trip to Wonderland.
Glengarry Glen Ross stars several Post Productions vets, including Joey Ouellette (The Children, The Beauty Queen of Leenane), Michael K. Potter (Oleanna, Blasted), Mark Lefebvre (American Buffalo), Gregory Girty (Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands, The Rhinoceros Woman), Fed Krysko (Prepared), and Alex Alejandria (Stop Kiss) – plus veteran actor but Post newcomer Christopher Lanspeary. The play is directed by Michael K. Potter, produced by Fay Lynn and Michael K. Potter, with poster and program designed by Kris Simic.
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet will be presented by Post Productions at The Shadowbox Theatre (1501 Howard Ave, corner of Howard and Shepherd) Apr. 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28 & 29. Showtime 8:00 PM (doors open 7:30). Tickets can be purchased for $25 through postproductionswindsor.ca or at the door (cash, debit, or credit card) if seats are still available. Presented in association with Waawiiyaatanong Feminist Theatre.