LONDON—Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s masterful examination of male ambition, misogyny, and bullshit, is making a return to the West End at a vital time. It reopened in London this week just as a series of once-formidable men were toppled and forced to confront their abuses of power.
The savage banter and “locker room talk” of Mamet’s play are yet to be bettered in decades of dramatic writing since the show opened here in 1983, before transferring to Broadway and then the big screen.
The latest incarnation is directed by Sam Yates, a rising star of the British theater scene, who recognizes the vitality of Mamet’s words at a time when Hollywood and the West End are awash with accusations of bullying, intimidation and sexual misconduct.
“What’s interesting about the play is Mamet’s dealing with a kind of toxic masculinity,” Yates told The Daily Beast. “It’s men all thrown together and you see dreadful behavior—you see the dreadful behavior of men who have power over others.”
For this revival, Yates has got himself an ideal leading man. Before a performance this week, he was sitting in the empty Playhouse theater on the north bank of the River Thames alongside Christian Slater.
One of the most talented young actors of his generation, Slater was once the hottest upstart in the brash era of 1980s and ’90s Hollywood “bad boys.”
Here he plays Ricky Roma, the top salesman in Mamet’s real estate office, who was portrayed by Al Pacino in the 1992 movie. Slater admits to a modicum of “anxiety” about assuming the role played so brilliantly by one of his idols, but he wears it lightly. A lifetime on stage and screen helps to project a knowing confidence in his own ability.
The character is perhaps best known for Pacino’s spitting rage at Kevin Spacey’s office manager in the film adaptation.
You just cost me $6,000. Six thousand dollars, and one Cadillac. That’s right. What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it, asshole? You’re fucking shit. Where did you learn your trade, you stupid fucking cunt, you idiot? Who ever told you that you could work with men?
While Slater first emerged in Hollywood as a teen heartthrob, he also became a fixture in the tabloids after convictions for drunk driving, fighting with cops, trying to take a gun on a plane, and violence against his girlfriend, after which he was jailed and sentenced to take part in a domestic abuse program. He was also charged with third degree sexual abuse after an allegation of assault in the street that was later dropped.
He may still be boyishly handsome at the age of 48, but Slater is certainly capable of projecting Roma’s air of menace.
As a young man with so much influence and power, he had his own brushes with the toxic masculinity seen in Mamet’s play; I asked whether he regretted his wilder years.
“No, no. I regret nothing,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve always taken my work extremely seriously and I think you learn from experience and it’s a process. I started working at the age of 9, I have had an opportunity to grow up in this business, in front of everybody, so of course nobody gets through unscathed. It’s just how I grew up, so everybody has gotten an opportunity to see highs and lows and ups and downs—that’s part of life.”
Now that he has settled down, does he have any advice for people caught up in recent allegations of sexual harassment or violence against women?
“Ooft, Jesus. Gosh, I don’t know—this is such a particular time where we’ve really hit a moment when such extraordinary change has to take place so I’m happy that women’s voices are being taken seriously and this age of secrecy and abuse of power era has to come to an end. I want women and all people to feel comfortable in the workplace, and I try to have that environment in my work.”
In the post-Weinstein world, it was jarring to hear Slater say he did not regret a history that includes being jailed for beating his girlfriend, so I asked at the end of the interview if he’d like a chance to clarify?
“What a salacious cunt this guy is!” he replied. The PR stepped in and ushered him away to the next appointment.
It was a flash of anger. A glimpse of Ricky Roma down in the stalls where we were talking. After the performance that night, he emailed to apologize. He explained that “the question of regret is hard for me to reckon with.” “I do regret my words this morning,” he wrote, but he offered none for his part in an era of Hollywood that may finally be coming to a close.
During the show, as Roma, he laments the changing times.
I swear it’s not a world of men… it’s a fucked up world there’s no adventure to it. Dying breed. Yes it is. We are the members of a dying breed.
Slater is brilliant as the hot-tempered manipulator, leading the cast toward a crescendo of foul-mouthed repartee that was greeted with cheers from the audience during opening night.
One moment he is charming, the next he’s kicking his desk in rage all the while keeping up the rat-a-tat of rhythmic insults.
Yates said the show—which has an all male cast—was full of parallels between Mamet’s obnoxious, bullying characters and the current U.S. president.
“I think a lot chimes with Trump,” he said. “He learned his trade selling real estate in the ’80s, so in terms of how these guys use language to sell an idea, whether it’s a good one or a bad one, there’s a load of bluster; a lot of playing for time; there’s a lot of lying; there’s lot of bullshit basically.”
“And manipulation, yeah,” said Slater, joining in. “This is certainly a play that I can imagine Trump identifying with extraordinarily on many levels. These are all very Trumpian-type characters.”
Interestingly it wasn’t the biggest bullies that Slater thought resembled Trump most closely, but the older, downtrodden figure famously played on-screen by Jack Lemmon.
“Shelly Levene is probably the closest reflection of Trump in this particular moment that we’re dealing with, where I feel like the walls are closing in. That would be how I would describe how Trump must be feeling now,” he said.
“He’s low on gas but going as fast as he can,” added Yates.
The man tasked with playing Levene is the Irish stage star Stanley Townsend, who delivers a mesmerizing performance. He agreed that Levene was the one feeling the pressure building on him. “That’s where ‘The Machine’ starts, Shelley’s in a tough place,” he said.
Townsend is a veteran of several Mamet productions and brings the experience of working with his exacting, rhythmic scripts to the ensemble.
“The pressure is that it's like a piece of music—you must fit the score. Especially in the sections when you mesh with your fellow players, it’s a shared rhythm, you can’t really learn it on your own. You have to learn it together, so we run the lines a lot together. If you miss a beat, the whole thing starts to creak and rock for you, because you know you've missed a beat—there’s that period of mourning—but you must go on and still hit the next set.
“There is a thing that happens and it’s a bit like a pterodactyl taking flight, when the play starts playing you and you’re in the moment and flying and it’s coming out of you it’s glory—it really is glory!”
On the first night there were several moments of glory when the audience roared, and Townsend and Slater exchanged giddy smiles.
The play is a fuller version of the drama—with a greater emphasis on lighter and funnier moments than the totemic screen adaptation.
“The movie is so serious,” said Slater. “The play is such a wonderful thing. In a movie, it’s hard to capture as much chemistry as we can have here on the stage. And the writing is just so back and forth, it’s a tennis match between actors up here, on film they rely so much on the editing. Here we really have to rely on purely the script, the direction and whatever chemistry we have up there.”
Slater and his colleagues have unquestionably succeeded in bringing these rapacious ’80s assholes to life for a new generation.