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Peterson takes cantankerous to a new level

Eric Peterson, foreground, plays the cantakerous, past-his-prime salesman Shelly Levene.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Glengarry Glen Ross

  • Written by David Mamet
  • Directed by David Storch
  • Starring Eric Peterson, Albert Schultz, Peter Donaldson
  • At the Young Centre in Toronto

This is a review of the 2009 production, now running again April 22 through June 5, 2010.

I'll admit to a certain amount of trepidation walking into Soulpepper's new production of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's profane and profoundly entertaining 1983 play about Chicago real-estate salesmen whose tactics would make Bernie Madoff blanch.

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One of the Soulpepper ensemble's weaknesses is that it is lacking in actors who can play convincingly coarse alpha males. Chekhov's whining aristocrats in decline are more their cup of tea than Mamet's vulgar, hyper-masculine Americans.

Thankfully, then, director David Storch has imported two outside talents to beef up this production: Eric Peterson and Peter Donaldson.

Peterson - lately of TV's Corner Gas , long of the Canadian stage - takes his talent at playing cantankerous to new levels in a great performance as the pathetic Shelly "The Machine" Levene, a past-his-prime salesman who aches with fractured pride. Peterson excels at showing his character's internal contradictions and class issues: Shelly is immensely proud of having put his daughter through school, but he seethes with suspicion of colleagues he suspects value book smarts over street smarts. His key line here is spat at the young office manager, John Williamson (Jordan Pettle): "Where did you learn that? In school?" It is an insult, but has undertones of jealousy and a fear of being left behind.

Donaldson, despite being saddled with an unnecessarily sardonic comb-over, brings some much-needed machismo to the production as the fed-up, furious Dave Moss. He is the most Mamet-ian of the bunch, his beast within close to getting out. When he delivers an anti-Indian tirade - which was timidly cut from the recent Broadway revival - you see the full depth of the darkness of his dog-eat-dog mentality.

The third crucial role in Glengarry Glen Ross is filled by a Soulpepper regular. Artistic director Albert Schultz plays the slick, sweet-talking Ricky Roma, and the part fits him like a custom-made suit. In essence, Schultz is playing a slightly more declassé version of himself - you can picture him spinning similarly seductive spiels to the rich of Toronto to get the coin that built his company's marvellous theatre.

When these three rumble on Ken MacDonald's eye-catching set in the second act, this Glengarry Glen Ross is electric - as when Moss interrupts Shelly's gloating about a sale by delivering a vicious kick to Roma's desk, knocking all of its drawers open. Roma pushes them back in one after another with a laugh.

In the less showy roles, Kevin Bundy proves once more that he's the go-to guy for flabbergasted, playing one of Roma's suckers, while Pettle is marvellously passive-aggressive as the squirrelly Williamson. The only weak link is William Webster, who can't seem to handle Mamet's clipped dialogue. He plays George Aaronow, a salesman who may be down on his luck, but here seems totally out of his element.

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Storch's production is best when he just gets out of the way of his cast. He occasionally interferes, however, with a bit of funny business that isn't - a guzzled cold cup of coffee, a door slammed in a face - and some odd, counterintuitive blocking. (And how could he let Donaldson cross his legs at the knee - a Mamet faux pas if I've ever seen one.)

Overall, this is a more subdued, more Canadian Glengarry Glen Ross than we might be used to seeing. But rather than marring Mamet, it shines a different light on his work. Perhaps the playwright isn't a critic or a celebrant of American masculinity as it exists, but rather a chronicler of a particular brand of maleness in decline - a Chekhov of the endangered American middle-class man's man, tracking him through his rapidly disappearing habitats: business ( Glengarry Glen Ross ), Hollywood ( Speed-the-Plow ) and politics ( November ).

"We are the members of a dying breed," Roma says. The down-to-earth if devilish salesmen are being replaced by the smarmy suits like Williamson. And that's where Pettle's performance is so crucial. He's slyly silent where the others are violently verbose, but is secretly the cruellest guy in the room. The managers are taking over, but the future isn't any brighter.

A remount of Glengarry Glen Ross runs April 22 to June 5.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More


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