NEW YORK— Early in "Glengarry Glen Ross," as David Mamet brilliantly employs the scene-blackout-scene rhythm he learned sweeping floors at Chicago's Second City cabaret, Shelley can't-close-a-deal Levene is told that he cannot have the "premium leads" (translation: the only sales leads that might actually result in a sale) because they are not given out to a person who "falls below that mark."
In Daniel Sullivan's high-profile Broadway revival of a great American drama of prosaic Midwestern business, a masterpiece that can withstand almost any out-of-whack revival, even this one, the great American actor Al Pacino blinks straight out at the audience. He will do this, beyond all bounds of common practice, for the next two hours, a choice at once interesting, sweet and weird. But first, Pacino's aptly gaunt salesman Shelley wrenches back his head to look at his unfeeling boss, played by David Harbour. "Then how," he says, dripping with just the right mix of obsequiousness, defiance and sanity-threatening exasperation, "do they get above that mark?"
Well, isn't that the fundamental paradox of American business, politics, education, life? Do all our lives not spin around the question of who gets the premium leads? Are not our great moral questions really some version of this brief exchange on fairness, spoken between an older, less powerful man and a young, marginally more powerful man? Mamet, writing at the zenith of observational powers now seemingly squelched in service of the polemical and the cerebral, stuffs this harrowing but crucially familiar existential exchange into a sketch that takes place in the blood-red booth of a crappy Chinese restaurant, somewhere barren on Chicago's North Side.
Such a moment is this! Pacino's instincts are too rich to let it pass him by, and, for a few minutes, you think that Sullivan's "Glengarry" will sear the play's soul. An hour or two later, you come to see that the production has its high points, its entertainments, its solid performances, and there is nothing herein to kill the appeal of this brilliantly constructed and spectacularly theatrical play -- part tragedy, part burglary whodunit, with carefully leaked information. But this production, which features a simple but telling design by Eugene Lee, ultimately does not succeed pretty much for the same reasons that the last Broadway production of Mamet's "American Buffalo" did not work out. It is insufficiently real and specific. And, frankly, if you'll forgive the parochialism, it's insufficiently recognizable as set in Chicago.
To some extent, the problems that afflict this production are not dissimilar to the problems that afflict the script to "The Anarchist," the new David Mamet drama playing down the block, which is having its plug pulled Dec. 16 after a raft of mostly negative reviews (I felt mixed). Thus there is chatter about what has happened to Mamet. "Always be closing," which we see projected, fortune cookie-like, between scenes at "Glengarry," is an adage for salesman to live by, but not ideal for playwrights.
Closing won't be an issue with a star-centered production of Mamet's greatest play, a drama brilliantly rooted in the real angst of those born without the premium leads. Although hardly an everyman in whom we can see ourselves, Pacino's Shelley is certainly playful, unpredictable and rhythmically impulsive — all fair enough for a more colorful fellow than Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, a fellow victim of the brutalities of American business. Pacino certainly captures Shelley's vulnerability, even if he channels much of that into eccentricity. The problems arrive more when it feels like these actors don't understand the huge stakes of small events in these third-tier salesmen's lives.
Pacino doesn't recount Levene's sole tale of success — the one actual sale (or so it seems) that puts him on the Cadillac prize board — with enough of the relived relish of a man for whom successes have been few. Similarly, Bobby Cannavale, who plays Ricky Roma, doesn't reveal the requisite raw panic when one of his sales threatens to go south. Cannavale and the director Sullivan both overestimate and underestimate this character. They overestimate him by missing the truth that he's only the king of a very low-stakes world, perennially terrified of slipping off the leader board. And they underestimate his eloquence. You don't believe that Cannavale, who lacks the requisite silver tongue, could sell Amish heaters in a swamp. In fact, he has a slickness that would put most people on their guard.
Richard Schiff, the "West Wing" star, turns in an isolated but moving performance as Aaronow, the mad-as-hell salesman who almost can't take it any more. And there's very solid work from the lesser-known actors in the company, such as Jeremy Shamos (a nervous Lingk), John C. McGinley (an unstinting Moss) and Murphy Guyer (a pitch-perfect cop). Harbour nearly busts a gasket in the "Go to lunch!" exchange, made famous in the movie by Kevin Spacey and forged here, excitingly, with less control and more panic.
There's no need to panic over Mamet. He's just changed his preoccupations. Just as Miller started to obsess over the limits of the intellect when it came to satisfying sensual needs, or as August Wilson grew tired of realism and craved the freedom of classic tragedy, Mamet has removed himself from the "Glengarry" salesmen and their working-class problems.
It's hard to imagine his observational powers have diminished; the issue seems to be more that his circle, both intellectual and personal, has changed. Sure, "Glengarry" is far a better play than "The Anarchist." Sure, one pines for a Mamet who better remembers what Second City, Chicago's streets and the denizens of the Lincoln Hotel combined to teach him of life back home. But Mamet remains an American great who's yet to bore us with anything. The great writers must be allowed to ebb and flow. Mamet is still selling us "Glengarry Glen Ross" and he's no fool. He knows which play people are buying.
"Glengarry Glen Ross" plays thru Jan. 20 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.