NEW YORK — David Mamet’s return to Broadway has been upstaged — by David Mamet.
A crackling revival of his excellent “Glengarry Glen Ross” opened over the weekend at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, a few steps from his latest play, “The Anarchist.”
Within a block, you can see Mamet’s past and present. And that may be unnerving for a man this brilliant. “The Anarchist” was roasted by critics and will limp off the stage after just 40 performances. It will be survived by a 30-year-old ghost, a play as lively as “The Anarchist” was arid.
“Glengarry Glen Ross,” a foul-mouthed brilliantly created and insightful look at men in the modern workplace, is drenched in testosterone and verbal trickery, whereas “The Anarchist,” a long-winded conversation between an inmate and a warden, was unexciting and lifeless.
But lifeless is not the first word that comes to mind while watching director Daniel Sullivan’s fresh look at two days in the lives of four desperate Chicago real estate salesmen. Sullivan and his first-rate cast plumb the play for its humor, so often lost amid the darkness and paranoia others have chosen to tease out.
This “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a hoot. The timing is pretty good too: Florida real estate and horrible desperation in offices is now in vogue.
The big star, of course, is Al Pacino, who plays Shelly “The Machine” Levene, the once-winning-but-now-struggling salesman. Pacino and Sullivan last teamed up with “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway and they risk the same result: Pacino is Pacino and, by definition, unbalances any production.
Here he works hard to be meek and chummy and desperate and mostly succeeds, though it’s hard not to think you’re watching Al Pacino working hard to be meek and chummy and desperate.
His eyes bulge, he plays with his hair, he takes long pauses while staring to get his point across — he bobs up and down in the Mamet dialogue, sometimes relishing the theatricality of the role and other times losing himself in it. That matches the Levene character, who is down and then up, then down again. Pacino’s eyes blaze triumphantly when he’s the cat, but later he is piteous as the mouse, begging “listen. Just one moment.”
The rest of the cast is first-rate: Richard Schiff, who played fidgety Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing,” is hysterical as the clueless George Aaronow; David Harbour, of “The Coast of Utopia,” is lovely as the crumbling office manager; John C. McGinley, the abrasive senior doctor on “Scrubs,” is wonderfully manipulative as Dave Moss; and Jeremy Shamos, who got a Tony Award nomination for “Clybourne Park,” is heartbreaking as a weak-willed customer.
It falls to Bobby Cannavale from “The Motherf----- With the Hat” to become the gravitational force holding the scenes together and he steps up with a first-rate Richard Roma, a role played by Pacino in a film version. Cannavale is perfectly cast — a snarling good-looking, swaggering actor who can also be a goodfella, a nice listener if you’ve got a problem.
He reels in Shamos’ character in the first act with such slick bravado that it’s no wonder checkbooks open around town. In Act 2, Cannavale’s slick-backed cool — “let’s talk about you” — is dropped as his Roma rails against the office manager and the police officer investigating a break-in at the office.
Mamet is back — but maybe not the way he wanted. “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a reminder of his potential. His present languid, overly intellectual work, will, to steal a phrase from this old show, “always be closing.”