Mamet’s monster of a play is given a mousy rendition, save for its star. By Peter Craven.

Missing Bisley takes shine off MTC’s Glengarry Glen Ross

Alex Dimitriades and John McTernan (seated) with Brett Cousins in MTC’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

It was a special performance for critics a week after the opening of what was looking like one of the more glittering events on the Australian theatre calendar. Alex Dimitriades was to play Ricky Roma, the Al Pacino part in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and this piece of star casting was to be balanced by the presence of one of the nation’s more noted veterans, Steve Bisley, in the even more towering role of Shelly Levene, the part Jack Lemmon had played like a dying and demented tiger at the end of his career in the 1992 movie. 

The only trouble was that just a matter of days before the opening, Bisley had to pull out because of illness and, instead of seeing the supreme weasel of Australian stage and screen, the man who had played Barney in what is arguably the greatest of all productions of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the 1995 one with Frankie J. Holden as Roo and Genevieve Picot as Olive, directed by Robyn Nevin at the height of her powers, instead of Bisley, the villain of Nadia Tass’s The Big Steal, the Machiavellian producer in Frontline with Rob Sitch, we were to get John McTernan, a rather less quicksilver older actor who was going to be “on book” (that is, script in hand) for the Melbourne opening that we critics therefore, courteously, stayed away from in droves. What no one was quite prepared for was that he’d still be clutching the script like a memory of happier days a week later and what we were being presented for review was a production that was manifestly lamed from the start. 

In fact, McTernan gives a skilled and credible performance as the old real estate agent on the skids, though the script stands as a sort of token of the fact that the role was perhaps always a bit beyond him. He seems to need Mamet’s text as a crutch rather than a necessity and yet the performance misses the hectic and terrifying bravura Shelly requires. 

It’s a pity, because Dimitriades as Roma has precisely the kind of deep well of rhetoric and rage, precisely the sort of ceaseless sea of murderous huckster’s hyperbole that the part requires. Though it should be emphasised that he alone of all his tribe manages to encompass the gigantism of Mamet’s language, which can seem so compounded of piss and wind that it can seem like nothing if it is not inhabited with sufficient danger and self-possession. 

It’s hard to know what Alkinos Tsilimidos’s production would have been like with Bisley, an actor who has never been afraid of being big and would have been very suited, on the face of it, to release the pent-up poignancy of a role in which an old past-it salesman reveals an affinity with a ham actor to the point of peril. 

But the production is, in the other roles – roles that have been famously essayed by the likes of Kevin Spacey and Ed Harris and Alan Arkin – rather underdone and mousy in a very Australian, naturalistic way. 

It doesn’t help that Mamet is a monster of a writer and that Glengarry Glen Ross represents his garrulous dramatic genius at a zenith of verbal far-outness. David Mamet is a playwright who takes massive lungfuls of the hottest air drama can sustain and projects it like a 19th-century sermon or the atavistic memory of the land that conjured up Moby-Dick or, at times, like so much vomit. He surges, he struggles, he writhes, he spews. He is a playwright who can look like the incandescent decadence of the American dream of drama and his logorrhoea, which is at its height in Glengarry Glen Ross, can make the most long-winded American masters of the dramatic mode, the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Tony Kushner, seem positively terse. 

Nor does it help this rather timid Australian production with its missing star that Glengarry Glen Ross is not only famous for its star-studded film version, but the script that Mamet rejigged for the film is distinctly superior to the original play that the MTC is doomed to, as it were, perpetually rehearse. 

In particular, the opening rant from the Alec Baldwin figure, the motivational aria of invective that sets the tone for the whole work, is absent from the play, which runs for a bare 90 minutes without an interval. Nor does it help that the very famous film script (which is intensely theatrical and very deliberately histrionic) is in the category of, say, some of Shaw’s film scripts or, to take a more recent example, the very bisexually inflected script of the film of Cabaret, which is much closer to the ambience of Isherwood than the original stage musical, denuded of all gayness, which continues to be played in all the revivals including Sam Mendes’s or – one imagines – its current resurrection with Michelle Williams. 

The film – with its intimate structural resemblance to a play – transfigures it. It makes it clear, for instance – as this production does not, or at least not to your forgetful slow-witted reviewer – precisely what Shelly does with the “leads”. It also has a far more lucid exposition and cogency because in his film script Mamet knows these hacks of property sellers are liable to be sacked if they don’t succeed. 

So what is left? There is the question of the “leads” – the hunches on which deals may be made – and the suggestion from the outset of pinching them and selling them to a competitor. Then there’s the hair-raising pas de deux between Roma and a hapless client whose wife wants to pull out of a deal, and the pathetic, grandly grotesque way in which Shelly tries to claw his way back to an imagined greatness first by trying to bribe the office manager into giving him good “leads” and then by his reckless action. Tsilimidos’s production fluffs the thriller aspect of the plot by blurring all the outlines and – except for Dimitriades – does not penetrate the great inflated bubble of Mamet’s dialogue that seems consciously Shakespearean in its richness and almost operatic in its massive gesticulation and formal intensity. 

Greg Stone in the Ed Harris role of the prime mover in the business of stealing the “leads” gives a fair Americanisation of his familiar whiny braggadocio act, though it’s not incompatible with a toned-down version of the style Mamet sings with. 

On the other hand, Rodney Afif as the guy he tries to suborn (the Alan Arkin part) is simply a walking caricature, superficially well observed but without inner fire. 

Then – like a signature of what in general goes wrong with this production – there is the affectless, very Sydney-style sneering of Nick Barkla as the office manager. Where Kevin Spacey in the film seemed like a creature from another world with his softness, this performance – not completely lacking in skill – does not have the right kind of predatory edge so that its “screw-you” gracelessness comes across as a lack of moral courage. Brett Cousins, as the hapless potential buyer who gets scared, is alright in his way but without the absolute credibility such characters need in the presence of Mamet’s lust to extract the grandeur from caricature. 

It’s true that McTernan, script in hand, does resemble a human being as Shelly – a slightly doddery, up-against-it Willy Loman in minor key. That’s one part of Shelly, but he misses the man who is willing to ape the colossal agony of questing for the whale of his own obsession in the face of a humiliation that might as well be crucifixion. 

Only Dimitriades gets inside Glengarry Glen Ross and it’s remarkable that he does in a production that’s saddled with central misfortune. Dimitriades, though, understands the absolute and deadly intensity behind the bluster and he knows that the very American arias of bullshit in Mamet – and Glengarry Glen Ross is the playwright’s Hamlet in this respect – are at the very heart of the thing Mamet dramatises. 

The clue to the man’s mesmerising dramatic talent is the way he sees the actor lurking like an agent of self-destruction in every human breast. Dimitriades has this to the last degree. He is dangerous, riveting and mad. His Roma also seems to see himself in the very teeth of the footlights that could destroy him – a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. 

Only Alex Dimitriades in this production knows that the formalities behind Mamet’s high rhetoric – his sub-Shakespearean bombast – is an index of the desperation one of nature’s pretty boys is driven to by his sense of election and artistry in a profession that shuffles and sifts through the dirt of the earth.

It’s a very fine performance and it alone in the MTC’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross makes you proud of our proximity to American drama. Liev Schreiber played Roma in a 2005 revival of the play in New York but I’d rather see Dimitriades. Then again, Schreiber had Alan Alda as his Shelly. It’s just such a pity Alex Dimitriades does not have Steve Bisley to dance and rage with and that this production, in other ways, remains, rather limitingly, “on book”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Glengarry Glen Dross".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.