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Give Keegan Theatre this much—it’s chosen to greet the 2008 holiday season with fare neatly matched to the souring national mood. Over the next few weeks, there’ll be plenty of those who will seek temporary escape from the rolling detonation of our global financial infrastructure by inviting visions of sugar plum fairies and armed rodents into their heads. Keegan, however, chooses to cast its dramaturgical lot with those of us who think the pre-ghost Scrooge was on to something, and that the Grinch was a hell of a lot more fun to be around before he underwent that grotesque, unnecessary cardiac enlargement procedure.
Thus, just in time for Christmas, the company’s opened its 11th season with a pair of concurrently running shows about dishonest men in desperate financial situations and the criminal lengths to which they go in futile hope of extracting themselves. God bless us, every one!
Out in Arlington, the company’s New Island Project stages Love, Peace and Robbery, a new play about two hapless ex-cons attempting to go straight, by Irish court reporter turned playwright Liam Heylin. Closer in, at Church Street, they’re taking a stab at Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s stiletto-sharp study of chest-thumping, back-biting—and really, really talkative—real estate salesmen.
“It’s cold out there now, John,” complains Kevin Adams ’ Shelly “The Machine” Levine, “It’s tight. Money is tight.” Now, that bit of dialogue isn’t exactly representative of the script’s now-familiar rhythmic gymnastics, but as feelingly delivered by Adams, it sets up the propulsive desperation that drives the action. The big bosses have instituted a sales contest; when it’s over, only the top two sellers in the four-man office will still have jobs.
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So, yeah—it’s timely.
It’s also, despite all of Mamet’s staccato circumlocutions, a remarkably lean play, stripped to little more than the punishing yet lovely music of the characters’ speech. Of course, most of the play’s monologues have become well-known, the stuff of actors’ exercises and audition tapes; the rate of f-bombs dropped per minute, once shocking, is now barely notable. But the writing still dazzles.
Not so the production, I’m afraid. There’s a strange somnolence to the proceedings, a heaviness, and this lack of energy means Mamet’s stylized, precise, hyperreal dialogue never crackles. Director Jeremy Skidmore seems to have taken note of this and asked his cast to scream more—substituting extra decibels for the missing voltage, as it were. The thing is, there’s so much anger built into Mamet’s lines—into the way his characters swallow the ends of sentences, double back, and launch into fresh, sharper ones—that all that shouting far overshoots the mark.
There are aspects that work. An early scene between two grousing salesman —the belligerent Moss (a deft Peter Finnegan), and the sad-sack Aaronow (Stan Shulman, effortlessly funny here)—evinces a brisk timing that comes closest to capturing What Might Have Been. Kevin Adams negotiates his character’s oscillations between obsequiousness and outrage with ease, even though it takes a bit too long for some of his choices to step free of Jack Lemmon’s long shadow. And Jacob Muehlhausen’s modest sets exude a shabby, lived-in character that’s pretty much perfect, down to a quintessentially pathetic office Christmas tree.
Maybe it’s a miscast Mark Rhea’s take on the role of top salesman Ricky Roma that best encapsulates what’s off-plumb about Keegan’s production. As written, Roma’s a sly, silver-tongued, charismatic mo-fo whose sales pitch, a corker of a monologue that closes Act I, is four parts seduction to one part pure bullshit. Yet Rhea delivers it without heat or appreciable nuance, opting—intentionally, I think—for a blunt matter-of-factness that makes his Roma come off as merely brutish.
Now, yes—at the end of the day, Roma is a bully. But he’s more than just that, or he should be. For Glengarry Glen Ross to succeed, for Mamet’s singular, high-wire dialogue to provide a meaningful purchase on the lives of the characters who speak it, Skidmore and his cast need to imbue those words with more life, not simply more volume.