For a nasty little play populated by nasty little people, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is an awfully neat little piece of social criticism—and the Keegan Theatre’s slick little production at Clark Street Playhouse mines Mamet’s ruthless efficiencies for plenty of punch.

In “a fucked-up world…of clock watchers, bureaucrats, office holders,” four members of “a dying breed” fight extinction with the only tools they have: chicanery, double-talk, foul-mouthed philosophies, and haggling skills that would shame a desert trader. Shelley “the Machine” Levene, Dave Moss, George Aaronow, and Richard Roma are sad men selling worthless real estate to sadder customers; they’re scraping by on the tailings of the American dream, scratching out an existence that’s not life, not liberty, certainly nothing like the pursuit of happiness.

Accustomed to a band-of-brothers camaraderie in the face of a world they despise, they’re forced into an increasingly cutthroat competition by a contemptible manager. The pressure to sell, sell, sell pushes all but the most successful of them into a ploy that, while it has a certain grim justice, crosses the line from dubious business to criminal enterprise. Their desperate deal-making continues like the convulsions of a just-killed snake even after the shaky scheme falls apart, and though Mamet leaves the ultimate consequences deliberately unclear as the curtain falls, his generally grim assessment of their situation doesn’t hint at a happy ending for anybody.

It’s hard to tell whether Mamet admires the nerve of these con artists more than he despises their dishonesty and desperation, but one thing is clear: He loathes the polite savagery of the system that drives them to cannibalize each other. Capitalism and its filthy compromises are his real targets here; Glengarry Glen Ross is, of course, a Death of a Salesman for a grittier age, though it doesn’t have nearly as much sympathy for the poor saps caught between profit and loss.

Structurally, the play is as soullessly efficient as the hustlers at its center, especially in the three quick scenes—each an unfair negotiation between unequal parties—that make up the first act. The recently luckless Shelley (Jim Jorgensen) wheedles his way into an under-the-table deal with the hated office manager (Larry Daniele) who passes out the all-important sales leads, while an embittered Moss (Mark A. Rhea) strong-arms hapless youngster Aaronow (Sun King Davis) into a plot that will simultaneously cripple their sadistic bosses and set them up in a shop of their own. Top dog Roma (Waleed F. Zuaiter), meanwhile, seduces a nebbishy mark (Jesse Terrill) with penny-a-pound philosophizing, cynical Technicolor rhetoric in which his worthless wares somehow represent an individualism none of the men onstage will ever really achieve.

Act 2 is a marginally more direct whodunit, a police procedural that plays out in the ransacked real estate office as a cop grills the salesmen offstage and Roma’s deal falls apart amid the overturned desks and upended file cabinets. It’s a bit of an anticlimax when the culprit eventually comes clean; his quick fold seems a contradictory impulse for an old-school closer, though the pathetic gambit he tries on the way out the door proves he’s a salesman to his very bones.

Leslie A. Kobylinski directs with a haphazard style that accentuates individual performances and distinct moments, but doesn’t do anything to support the sense of acceleration, of events spiraling out of control, that the play’s last half-hour needs. The design team contributes neat and unobtrusive work, but what really keeps Keegan’s production together is a raft of solid performances—especially Zuaiter’s rapacious take on Roma and Jorgensen’s revolting, reptilian Shelley. They’re two sides of a coin rendered worthless in an equation that sees nothing but numbers, and their despair at realizing it is the most human thing about the play.

Unspeakable things happened at the Confederate prison at Andersonville. Unconscionable things happened in the federal courtroom where its questionably guilty commandant was all but lynched by a military tribunal. Unwieldy things happen in The Andersonville Trial, the 1959 courtroom drama playwright Saul Levitt wove from the endless trial transcripts.

Levitt does his earnest best to illuminate the issues at the crux of the case, diligently trying to pick apart the tangled threads of political necessity and procedural uncertainty in a way that makes sense for the post-Nuremberg era. And Jack Marshall’s audience-immersion staging for American Century Theater, which lets designer Thomas B. Kennedy bring the audience right into the courtroom he’s built in the black-box space at Gunston Arts Center, does what it can to ratchet up the tension.

But for all the horrific details that pile up as the lawyers loose their rhetorical salvos—13,000 Union soldiers died at Andersonville, which was as much open sewer as prison—the play is essentially a long philosophical debate, weighing the Hobbesian choices of wartime strategy and peacetime politics against higher-flown ideals about overriding humane morality. If Levitt’s refusal to settle for easy answers is ultimately to his credit, the play’s carefully balanced arguments won’t carry much thrill for an audience inured to legal pyrotechnics by the likes of Law & Order.

Not that there isn’t some drama inherent in the historical record. The bitter anti-Confederate zeal—and insatiable personal ambition—of military prosecutor N.P. Chipman leads him to call witness after dubious witness, to mercilessly badger a shellshocked former Andersonville inmate, even to physically assault the decidedly infirm defendant. But Levitt hasn’t done much about creating a character for Chipman, and Bruce Alan Rauscher’s hesitant performance doesn’t do much to bring him to life, either. So there’s a certain stilted, pro forma quality even in the sequences meant to illustrate the ethical quandary he finds himself in: Evidence aside, he needs to argue that soldiers are obliged to disobey orders they find morally repugnant—a position the military judges, for obvious reasons, warn him sternly against taking. If Chipman can’t bring himself to resist their realpolitikal pressures and pursue what he knows is the real point, how is he any better than the death-camp commander who insists he was bound by the Confederacy’s orders?

Historical accuracy, meanwhile, requires that Charles Matheny’s ailing Henry Wirz spend most of his time not in the defendant’s chair but reclining on a sofa at the periphery of the stage; because Matheny, sleepy-eyed and arrogant, is one of the production’s more compelling presences, this is hardly ideal. The proceedings crackle to life at last when he takes the stand to defend himself, late in Act 2, but aside from a few deftly managed cross-examinations courtesy of Nat Benchley’s suave defense counsel, Andersonville never manages to make itself genuinely absorbing in the way you’d think a war-crimes trial would. CP

More from WCP