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September 2, 2008

ATL season opens with a closer

(Actors Theatre of Louisville presents David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Directed by Mark Masterson. Continues through Sept. 20 at the Pamela Brown Theater. For tickets, call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.)

In clipped bursts of profane dialogue, David Mamet’s characters consider the big questions. What good are ethics in an unprincipled world? And what does it mean to be a man in America? Actors Theatre of Louisville opens its 45th season with a crackling performance of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” directed by Mark Masterson. Mamet’s grim look into the treacherous world of real estate examines the lengths men are willing to go to secure their place at the top.

Photo by Harlan Taylor: Larry John Meyers (back), William Mapother and Stephen Duff Webber star in Actors Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which continues through Sept. 20.
Photo by Harlan Taylor: Larry John Meyers (back), William Mapother and Stephen Duff Webber star in Actors Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which continues through Sept. 20.

The play opens in a restaurant frequented by salesmen who sell worthless land to naïve investors. There’s a sales contest going on, and the numbers on the board aren’t good for old-timer Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Larry John Meyers). Desperate to close a sale, he begs cold fish office manager Williamson (a pitch-perfect Stephen Duff Webber) to give him the top leads so he can get back in the game. 

In their world, verbal sleight-of-hand is a necessary means to an end. Mamet’s jarring cadence allows Meyers and Webber to move swiftly through a range of intensity, charging every syllable with meaning. Meyers is a stunning force — a raw, frantic nerve with a thinning layer of bravado thrown on like a cheap overcoat. Levene is a working-class hero and an unrepentant professional liar, but Meyers gives us more crumbling human than shark. 

When two other salesmen, Moss and Aaranow (Charles Weldon and Richard Bekins), find their routine conversation shifting to talk of burglary, the layers of deceit begin to pile up. But are they talking about it, or merely speaking of it? Of course, there’s a difference, and like Shelley and Williamson, they are hyperaware of the shifting meaning of their words. But Weldon’s cheerful bluster and Bekins’ stammer turn the scene into a Shakespearean fools’ summit, bringing a lighthearted tone into what is at best a darkly comic scene. Their broad deliveries make Moss and Aaranow downright likeable, undermining the tension Meyers and Webber built so uncomfortably in the beginning. 

We are reminded of how well the sales game can be played by Louisville native William Mapother (of television’s “Lost”), who glides into the role of top seller Ricky Roma with slick audacity. Whether he’s charming a timid man (John Leonard Thompson) into dreaming big or tearing down Williamson with glee, Mapother makes us admire and despise Roma — you’d love to have a drink with him, but you wouldn’t leave him alone with your wallet. 

A Cadillac, the contest prize, is the least of what’s at stake — Mamet’s agents are fighting every day for the right to look in the mirror and see a success. They haul signed contracts back to the office like trophies of a capitalist war. When they’re hot, they glide above the fray, delivering verbal smackdowns to anyone in the way. When they’re not, their failures curdle inside them, prompting cruel attacks and reckless sabotage. Their biggest tool is fear, and they manipulate it well in others because they are so intimately acquainted with it themselves.