How well does David Mamet’s play, 34 years after its world premiere at the National’s Cottesloe, stand up? The short answer is with great vigour. That is partly because its report from the frontline of cut-throat capitalism still rings true and partly because this latest revival has a tip-top cast headed by Christian Slater who has already earned his spurs on the London stage.
Mamet’s play takes its time. It starts with three short scenes in a Chinese restaurant that catch the desperation of Chicago real-estate salesmen trying to offload tracts of dud land. Levene is the declining champ pleading for more leads (or appointments) that will give him a place on the sales graph. Moss is a cunning operator trying to talk his colleague, Aaronow, into carrying out an office robbery. Meanwhile, the current top dog, Roma, is seen coming on to a potential client in an act of intellectual seduction. But the meat of the play lies in the second half when the four men face up to the consequences of an overnight internal raid.
Today the elimination dance of capitalist competition has been turned into TV entertainment with The Apprentice of which, in the States, Donald Trump was the overweening host. But Mamet’s play scorchingly reminds us that, in the real world, jobs and lives are at stake. He implicitly condemns a system that turns the salesmen into con artists who feel their virility is under threat: “I got my balls back,” one of them loudly trumpets after securing a contract. Yet, without moralising or peddling messages, Mamet also suggests there is a perverse heroism about these tainted Galahads who at least go out into the field while the office manager controls their destinies from behind a desk.
But the joy of the play lies in its language, which ricochets off the walls like a ball in a squash court and which is roundly relished in Sam Yates’s production.
Slater, seen in London in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Swimming With Sharks, has exactly the measure of Roma. He hooks his client with a fake confidentiality yet in the office turns into a camel-coated diva with an unshakeable ego and a visible contempt for the desiccated desk wallah. Stanley Townsend matches him blow for blow as the over-the-hill Levene: it is a pleasure to see the twinkly eyed Townsend springing around on the balls of his feet like a rejuvenated pugilist once he thinks he has landed a juicy contract.
The scene where Robert Glenister’s manipulative Moss tries to cajole Don Warrington’s apprehensive Aaronow into plundering the office leads also shows Mamet’s mastery of language as a form of camouflage. “I mean are you actually talking about this?” asks Aaronow of the projected heist, to which Moss cagily replies: “We’re just speaking about it.” Kris Marshall, barely recognisable as the flat-haired, bespectacled manager, also exudes the caution of a man who has never been exposed to the dubious artistry of salesmanship.
Mamet’s play may not have the tragic weight of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to which it is inevitably compared. But it dramatises the world of work and exposes the fallibility of a bullshitting patriarchy in which men talk big to disguise their panic and fear.