Produced by Acts to Grind Theatre at Mainline Theatre, Nov. 7 to 18.
Notoriously fueled by “the heat generated by men”, David Mamet’s searing 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winner Glengarry Glen Ross might be considered an outdated relic in this #MeToo era. Or is its exposé of the devastation wrought by toxic masculinity more timely than ever? In any case, it is, on first glance, an unusual – and on second glance, pretty apt — choice for Acts To Grind Theatre, whose repertoire usually revolves around Queer-centric themes, the kind of diversity, in fact, mocked and excoriated by Mamet’s panic-stricken, misogynistic, homophobic and racist wannabe Alpha males.
Mamet’s glitteringly filthy dialogue has earned his play the nickname Death of a Fucking Salesman, and it’s a telling sign of the times that its depiction of capitalism as a seething piranha pool has been performed more often, at least here in Montreal, than Arthur Miller’s equally critical but much more genteel approach. Glengarry got a Segal production back in 2014 (which I didn’t catch) and a superb francophone production at Théâtre du Rideau Vert in 2016. Last year, Brigitte Poupart brought her all-female version to Usine C.
Acts to Grind Theatre, then, is the fourth Montreal company to tackle the play in as many years, though squeezed finances have forced it into a much smaller space than those others. No matter — the Mini-Main at Mainline Theatre is just the kind of space that should capture the pressure cooker atmosphere of the characters’ situation as they fight to survive the play’s famous sales competition (first prize: a Cadillac, second prize: a set of steak knives, third prize: you’re fired).
Sometimes it does. One of the strongest scenes is that between Aaronow and Moss, here played by Michael Aronovitch and Jake Caceres respectively. The disgruntled Moss is planning to rob the office of its file of most promising leads, and he cajoles the relatively honest (read “weak” in this context) Aaronow not only into going along with the heist but potentially taking the fall. The way it’s played here makes Moss’s masterfully amoral gamesmanship and Aaronow’s hapless entanglement as clear and as compelling as I’ve seen it.
The scene is one of three First Act duologues all set in a Chinese restaurant, all demonstrating the salesmen’s capacity for combining ruthless combativeness with shameless wheedling. In the first of them, one-time hotshot but now ageing has-been Shelly Levene is trying to persuade slimy office boss Williamson to slip him some of those precious leads. On the night I saw it (to be fair, just a day after the show’s opening), Zag Dorison, as Levene, lost control of Mamet’s seemingly chaotic but actually unforgivingly precise dialogue, throwing the all-important rhythm of the scene out of wack. Overall, Dorison made a strong stab at suggesting Levene’s sweaty, whiny desperation, but didn’t really convey the grit that had once earned him the nickname Levene the Machine. Bryan Libero, who was terrific as a troubled, potentially murderous teen in the company’s production of Brad Fraser’s True Love Lies, gets Williamson’s stiff arrogance just right, but looks ill-at-ease in his “reaction shots.”
Izak Benrobi is silky smooth as star salesman Ricky Roma (is he channeling a bit of Brando there?), but could do with a bit more connection with his co-performers too, nowhere more so than when he’s sharing the space with the show’s director, Davyn Ryall, who plays customer and easy mark James Lingk. No doubt budget constraints forced Ryall to step in to what might be seen as a largely reactive role, but his under-powered performance leaves a seduction/selling scene with Roma falling flat, and undermines what should be the tightening tension of the second act when Lingk begins to wriggle on the hook that Roma has baited for him.
As with most productions nowadays, this one borrows the famous scene added in the movie version where Alec Baldwin’s motivational speaker brings along his brass balls to pulverize the under-performing losers of the Mitch and Murray sales office. It works nicely here, Olivier Ross-Parent making for a repellent and reptilian Blake, staring down his victims who sit there like sulky children. The inclusion of the film’s exposition-heavy phone calls works less well and interferes with the play’s carefully calibrated structure. It’s missteps like this that prevent the pressure cooker from generating enough heat, but it’s an enjoyable enough production with some individual moments of power and vicious comedy.