KNOW Theatre successfully tackles controversial play

Reviewed by George Basler

Violence is on display at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton. The instruments aren’t guns or knives, but verbal cruelty and desperation that can warp human beings.

This desperation is the main theme of KNOW’s first-rate production of David Mamet’s controversial, 1984 Pulitzer prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross. Set in a Chicago real estate office, the play focuses on a group of salesmen willing to go to any lengths to survive in the dog-eat-dog world where the highest- grossing salesman wins a Cadillac, and the losers get sacked.

KNOW Theatre’s playbill rightly compares Glengarry to Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman. Both feature the archtypical American character of a salesman who depends on his wits and nerves to survive. That being said, Glengarry is a far lesser work than Salesman, which in my opinion is the greatest American play ever written. None of the characters in Glengarry approach the tragic dimension of Miller’s Willy Loman.

But, on its own level, Glengarry is a riveting piece of work that will hit home to anyone who has been forced to live through — or with — the Darwinian power struggles of an office workplace. And the KNOW Theatre production more than does justice to Mamet’s play.

One of the strongest aspects of Mamet’s effort is the language. When Glengarry premiered, the spiraling obscenities of the characters (in all, the “f” word is used 144 times in the play) were shockingly unique.

That shock value has lessened over the years when almost any production on cable drops the “f bomb.” What remains is the intensity and momentum of Mamet’s speech rhythms as the characters ensnare, cajole and compete with each other. The language can be darkly funny and, as one critic has noted, almost poetic — albeit with a lot of obscenities thrown in.

In order for the play to work, the actors have to catch this rhythm. Like a chorus line, they have to be in sync. One false step, and the momentum is lost. The actors also have to make Mamet’s stylized speech patterns sound spontaneous and naturalistic.

KNOW’s cast, under the direction of Brandt Reiter, rises to this challenge at a high level. Nick DeLucia, Dave Merrell, Mark T. Harding, Mitch Tiffany and Tom DeLillo all do first-rate jobs portraying the salesmen. Rick Mertens also does a fine job in the supporting role of a befuddled customer. In addition, Tim Gleason, KNOW Theatre’s artistic director, fills in nicely in the small role of a police inspector.

Particularly impressive was Merrell’s reptilian coldness as the office manager that counterbalances the more flamboyant desperation of the other characters. In the plum role of Shelly “the Machine” Levene, an aging salesman down on his luck, DeLucia is emotionally wrenching in the final scene when Levene’s life unravels before the audience’s eyes. It is devastating.

Glengarry‘s theme is certainly topical at a time of economic struggle when an increasing number of people can seem manipulated and exploited by a system that no longer seems to work. Still, it is a difficult play to get your arms around. Is it meant to be a critique of the capitalist system? Does the play have any larger sociopolitical implications at all? Or is it simply an exercise in cynicism with no larger meaning? I can’t answer that.

But no one can say that Glengarry is boring, and this production certainly does the play justice.

IF YOU GO: Glengarry Glen Ross closes this weekend. Performances are at 8 p.m. today (Saturday, June 23) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (June 24). The KNOW Theatre is located at 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets are $20 (seniors, $15 ; students, $10 ). Go online to www.knowtheatre.org or call 724-4341; for credit card purchases, go to brownpapertickets.com or call (800) 838-3006.

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