David Mamet’s Tony, Olivier and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Glengarry Glen Ross is back on Broadway for the third time in an all-star revival led by Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale. Read on to find out how this shocking piece of theater has continued to woo audiences around the world for almost three decades.
Widely considered one of David Mamet’s greatest works, Glengarry Glen Ross is rooted in his experience working at a real estate office on the North Side of Chicago in 1969. “I sold worthless land in Arizona to elderly people,” the playwright told the San Diego Reader. Years later, he used this experience to shape Glengarry’s seedy salesmen desperate to earn a buck. "This play is very much about work and about how one is altered by one's job,” Mamet said.
Following in the steps of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman, Mamet staked new ground with the shocking and obscene way his salesmen spoke to one another. He explained that the Glengarry dialogue was inspired by street talk and overheard conversations. “I worked a bunch of these scenes with people using extremely arcane language—kind of canting language of a real-estate crowd…and I thought, ‘Well, if it fascinates me, it will probably fascinate them, too.’”
Mamet hadn’t had much luck on Broadway in his first decade as a playwright, so he heeded the advice of friend and colleague Harold Pinter and debuted Glengarry Glen Ross in London, where it opened at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe Theatre on September 21, 1983. British critics and audiences loved the unholy triumvirate of over-the-hill, Willy Loman-like Shelly Levene; his brash and unscrupulous mentoree, Richard “Ricky” Roma; and their amoral office manager, John Williamson. This award-winning production set the stage for the play’s American debut.
The Year of Glengarry
Appropriately enough, Glengarry Glen Ross opened first in Chicago with veteran character actor Robert Prosky as Shelly and a then-unknown Windy City actor named Joe Mantegna as Ricky. “I’m reading this script—about leads and all this stuff—I didn’t know what the hell Mamet was even talking about,” the Criminal Minds star recently told The New York Times Magazine. “But the guy’s name is Ricky Roma. My name’s Joe Mantegna. He’s an Italian-American. He’s from Chicago. I certainly knew hustlers. I just had to fill in the blanks. When I walked on that stage, my feeling was: I am that matador. And I’m gonna kill every bull that comes into the arena.”
And how: Mantegna’s blazing performance at the Goodman Theatre and later at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, where Glengarry opened on March 25, 1984, paved the way for the play to win the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, as well Tony nominations for Best Play, Best Director (Gregory Mosher) and the featured performances of Mantegna and Prosky. (Mantegna won.) In spite of the expletive-heavy script, the Broadway production enjoyed a respectable run of 378 performances.
After seeing the play, film producer and former head of production at Columbia Pictures Jerry Tokofsky rang Mamet personally to express interest in turning Glengarry into a major motion picture. Tokofsky paid $500,000 for the movie rights and another $500,000 to Mamet to write the screenplay.
A Tough Sell
In spite of one producer’s enthusiasm, film studios didn’t race to get on the Glengarry Glen Ross bandwagon. “It's got no women, it’s got no sex, it’s got no violence and it’s got no special effects,” Jack Lemmon, who was cast as Shelly, told The New York Times. “So even if it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it’s got nothing that the studios are interested in. What it’s got is a guy [Mamet] who knows how to write people, whose characters are terribly real and terribly honest and who speak in a street vernacular that’s authentic.”
As Lemmon noted, actors recognize juicy roles when they read them, and he and co-stars Al Pacino (Ricky) and Alec Baldwin (as Blake, a character not in the play) took major pay cuts to appear in the movie. They were joined by Kevin Spacey as Williamson, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin as salesmen Dave Moss and George Aaronow and Tony winner Jonathan Pryce as weak-willed “mark” James Lingk. Glengarry Glen Ross was released on October 2, 1992, to strong reviews, and Pacino was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his performance.
“Every actor, or anybody who wanted to be an actor in 1992, went and saw that movie,” Broadway’s current Ricky Roma, Bobby Cannavale, told the Times. “I bought the VHS and the DVD.”
Always Be…a Hit
“The good drama survives because it appeals not to the fashion of the moment, but to the problems both universal and eternal, as they are insoluble,” David Mamet wrote. His words have certainly proved true of Glengarry Glen Ross.
In 2005, producer Jeffrey Richards (press agent for the original 1984 Broadway production) presented the first Broadway revival of the play, starring Liev Schreiber as Ricky and Alan Alda (breaking away from his good guy public image, as Lemmon had in the movie) as Shelly. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called director Joe Mantello’s “high-octane” production at the Jacobs Theatre “impeccably realized.”
In a highly competitive featured actor Tony race, Schreiber, Alda and their co-star Gordon Clapp (Dave Moss) were up against Michael Stuhlbarg (The Pillowman) and David Harbour (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). As usual, Ricky Roma proved to be awards bait, although Tony winner Schreiber later confessed that he had expected Stuhlbarg to win.
The show also picked up the 2005 Tony for Best Revival. Even the famously prickly Mamet was pleased. “He was so happy about this production,” Alda told Broadway.com. “It made me very, very happy because I think he’s the one we all wanted to make sure really, really went for it.”
Seven years later, producer Jeffrey Richards is back in the real estate office, having coaxed Al Pacino to return to the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, this time as Shelly Levene. The 2012 revival of the play reunites Pacino with his Merchant of Venice director, Tony winner Daniel Sullivan.
“I’ve wanted to do the play for a long time,” Sullivan said at a recent Glengarry press conference. “In this case, Al [Pacino] attracted me to it. Al wanted to take a look at Shelly Levene as opposed to Ricky Roma, and I thought it was a wonderful idea. It is also one of the best plays I know, if not the best play, about business and certainly American business. It’s a play that continues to change with the times.”
To co-headline the new production, Sullivan recruited Emmy winner and two-time Tony nominee Bobby Cannavale as Ricky Roma. With Pacino and Cannavale in place, the revival attracted a slew of stars for the supporting roles, including Tony nominee David Harbour as John Williamson, John C. McGinley as Dave Moss, Emmy winner Richard Schiff as George Aaronow, Tony nominee Jeremy Shamos as James Lingk and Murphy Guyer as Detective Baylen. Cannavale calls the star-studded cast “a dream come true.”
See the dream-team live in Glengarry Glen Ross, opening at the Schoenfeld Theatre November 11.