The Root of All Evil: Glengarry Glen Ross and Golden Boy on Broadway

Two very different critiques of the American dream, back in new revivals

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  • Read Later / Scott Landis

Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale in Glengarry Glen Ross.

David Mamet has become a born-again political conservative. But are there any plays that present a more depressing spectacle of American capitalism in action than Glengarry Glen Ross? The desperate salesmen in Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner are as doomed as Willy Loman, trying to con people into pouring their life savings into dubious real estate, as they scramble like lab mice to climb the office chalkboard in a cutthroat competition to keep their jobs.

Clifford Odets was a committed leftist when he wrote Golden Boy, his 1937 drama about a New York kid who gives up “art,” his violin playing, for the lure of money and fame as a professional boxer. In style and temperament, the two plays — both back on Broadway in new revivals — could hardly be more different. Glengarry Glen Ross is spare, cynical, savagely funny. Golden Boy is big, romantic, filled to the brim with characters and plot in a way that marks it as a relic of an earlier playwriting era. Yet both take dead aim at the American dream, and both land their punches.

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Glengarry is the far more familiar play. Since its original Broadway production in 1986, it has been revived on Broadway once before (in 2005), turned into a 1992 film, and been referenced so often that it seems to be always with us. It is probably Mamet’s best play, a case when his minimalist style was fleshed out with just enough character detail and plot surprise to make it feel like a full evening of theater. Daniel Sullivan’s new production is for the most part solid — with the high-voltage Bobby Cannavale perfectly cast as the office hotshot Ricky Roma, and John C. McGinley, Richard Schiff and David Harbour (as the icy, white-bread office manager) excellent in supporting roles.

But the reason Glengarry Glen Ross is back on Broadway is Al Pacino, and he throws the revival out of whack. Pacino, who played Ricky Roma in the 1992 movie, this time takes the unlikely role of Shelly Levine, the over-the-hill salesman in a panic for good leads. Pacino embellishes the part with his whole method-acting arsenal: facial tics, eccentric line readings, a kind of flamboyant recessiveness — sinking into his chair, dropping his hoarse voice to a barely audible whisper at times.

He moves Shelly to the center of the play, and he commands our attention. The problem is that he simply doesn’t look or sound like any salesman you’ve ever met. Both Jack Lemmon in the movie and Alan Alda in the last Broadway revival were slicker actors, but more credible and sympathetic as the glad-handing salesman gone to seed. Pacino tries to sell us on Shelly as a more devious and complicated character, but be doesn’t close the deal.

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There’s plenty in Golden Boy that strains credulity too, starting with the central character, Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a violin virtuoso who risks his precious hands in the boxing ring —  a vaguely ludicrous conception that works better as a metaphor than as the crux of a social-realist drama. Then too, there’s Joe’s sad-eyed Italian-American father (Tony Shalhoub); their Schopenhauer-quoting Jewish next-door neighbor (Jonathan Hadary); and a gallery of tough-as-nails fight promoters, managers and trainers that could have been filched from the Warner Brothers stock-company directory in 1935.

Bartlett Sher’s high-pitched production doesn’t exactly tamp down the clichés and excesses. It would have been nice, for example, if we had gotten at least a hint of the artistic sensitivity that Joe is supposedly turning his back on. But when he comes on like a ball of fire in his first scene, talking a fight manager (Danny Mastrogiorgio) into letting him sub for an injured boxer in a bout that night, he is so cocky and testosterone-fueled that you can’t imagine him sitting still for the “Flight of the Bumblebee,” much less Mozart. (Significantly, the one time when he actually hear his violin playing, he is offstage.)

Still, the new production of this rarely revived Odets play is so earnest and old-fashioned it feels fresh, a reminder of the days when American dramatists weren’t afraid to think big and shout from the rooftops. Michael Yeargan’s realistic sets sharply evoke the Depression-era ambience, and Joe’s gradual, agonized seduction by the materialistic world has an operatic grandeur. It’s a passionate play, given a passionate production that eventually pummels us into submission. Unlike Mamet’s salesmen, it’s not afraid to show the sweat.