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Theater Review:

"GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS" at Steppenwolf Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Chicago playwright David Mamet might have appreciated the irony of "technical problems" interfering with an intensely low-tech play like "Glengarry Glen Ross" during a recent performance at Steppenwolf Theatre. His 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy -- which received its world premiere that same year at Goodman Theatre and went on to a successful Broadway run (before being made into a movie starring Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon) – exists in the elusive realm of rhythms and pauses. Steppenwolf presents its revival through Jan. 19.

The language both illuminates and cancels out the plight of Mamet’s downtrodden, old-school real estate salesmen up against the industry’s impending corporate re-structuring. So when the massive, ransacked-office backdrop for the second act got stuck somewhere in the fly space, audiences were asked to file out of the theater and, for about 30 minutes (including intermission), had plenty of time to ponder the playwright’s elemental silences and carefully constructed "casual" phrasing. It can’t be denied that, during the unexpected break, Mamet’s razor-sharp linguistic carving of competitive futility lost some momentum.

But it also pointed to the inherent flaws of an over-produced staging, whose impressively naturalistic scenic design by Derek McLane felt too overpowering and looked too obviously distressed – from the silver duct tape on the blood-red booths in the opening Chinese restaurant sequences to the elaborately trashed office in Act Two. More in tune with the play’s desperation is McLane’s choice to line the office in cheesy fake-wood paneling and set blinding fluorescent lights into an equally tacky linoleum ceiling – cuttingly illuminated by lighting designer Pat Collins.

I understand that it’s not fair to criticize a theater for its technical mishaps; oddly, the problem drew me deeper into Mamet’s paradoxically evocative yet skeletal language. And, on the positive side, the glaringly huge set pieces made Mamet’s four groveling salesmen, their tightly wound sales manager, an unwitting client and a belligerent cop appear to shrink as rapidly as their hopes, motives and, yes, dreams.

Director Amy Morton dissects Mamet’s words with as much clarity and precision as the playwright himself. Her dead-on all-male cast members are as expert at reacting as they are at impeccably "fumbling" over the playwright’s fragmented dialogue and blustering, repetitive obscenities. Each moment is a well-punctuated musical moment – individual scene studies that bleed into a minimalist dramatic equivalent to an opera by composer Phillip Glass. Mike Nussbaum and Tracy Letts in their opening contrapuntal "wait a minute" orchestrations serve as prime examples of Mamet’s meticulously abrasive rhythmic sensibility.

Audiences more familiar with Mamet’s screenplay for "Glengarry Glen Ross" may be taken aback by the ultra-shaved suggestiveness of his original stage version. The movie fills in most of the play’s incisively incoherent blanks.

Mike Nussbaum, who originated the role of the insecure George Aaronow in the original Goodman production, tackles with low-key power and a certain beaten-down grandeur the lead character of Shelly "The Machine" Levene – a salesman from a more instinctual era. Shelly’s once unconventional tactics are getting swallowed up by the latest suits with their hypocritical, by-the-book rules that essentially rob the field of its emotion-driven humanity (despite what might be perceived as unethical approaches). Nussbaum is well paired with the lanky and calculatingly suave David Pasquesi as his one-time protégé Ricky Roma (although Pasquesi sometimes verges on the reptilian).

Matt DeCaro’s raging "duets" as the frustrated Dave Moss with Alan Wilder as the mealy-mouthed Aaronow create their own hilarious yet desperate musical machinations – especially during DeCaro’s Iago-esque suggestions for stealing the leads and making the office look like it was robbed. Tracy Letts as the uptight sales manager John Williams anchors the ensuing cacophony; while Gary Brichetto’s abrupt order-barking cop is an intriguing counterpoint to Peter Burns’ mousy vocalized pauses as Roma’s shmuck client James Lingk.

Technical difficulties aside, this cast still makes beautifully dissonant music together.•

"Glengarry Glen Ross" runs through January 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650, N. Halsted. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 312-335-1650 or log onto www.steppenwolf.org.

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