You know what it takes to stage this Mamet play? It takes brass balls. And Urban Aphrodite scores a big hit with its new production at Sasha's.
Urban Aphrodite's production of Glengarry Glenn Ross
opened last night in the upstairs room above Sasha's
. The play's by American playwright David Mamet and was first staged in London in 1983. Most know it from the incomparable film adaptation directed by James Foley and starring one of the finest ensemble casts of the 1990s: Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin and Al Pacino.
The play takes place at a Chinese restaurant and a real estate office in Chicago where a bunch of morally corrupt salesmen try to sell dubious land investments to a bunch of deadbeat clients. Its power lies strictly in its dialogue, the fast, overlapping speeches by these shabby men, who try to hustle first their clients and then each other.
It's an incredibly difficult play to stage because everything is focused on reams of uninterrupted, overlapping dialogue, but Urban Aphrodite has risen remarkably to the challenge. The all-male cast thunders through the script, capturing all the seedy brilliance of these two-bit grifters and their schemes.
Special credit goes to Paul Collins as the perennial chump Aaronow. Both on and off the action, his acting is on point. Gerard DeBenedetto is excellent as the slimy, fast talking Moss, while Dave Earl manages to capture all the complex pathos of the aging washout Levene. But star turn goes to Justin Lenderking as Ricky Roma. He makes the part his own, to such an extent that at times we can forget Al Pacino's performance in the role, and get sucked into this new imagining of the bitter, manipulative shyster.
The accents at times slip a little. Earl's Kiwi flutters around the edges of his delivery. I wonder whether anything would have been lost if director Ann James had instructed everyone to play it straight, in their native accents. But no matter, you're soon lost in the frayed reality of these bitter men, one that's laced with black humor and taut with the inevitability of disaster.
The staging is simple — minimal props, minimal dressing, with everything dependent on dialogue. This is the stage version, unabridged, so advocates of the film will find plenty of new material here, but Ann James has also included the "coffee's for closers" speech, which Mamet wrote specifically for the screen adaptation. No staging of it would now be complete without this pestilent tongue-lashing in which Blake, the big man from the head office, rains derision on the sales skills of the rest of the cast. It's the sort of speech that male co-workers chant to each other on particularly irksome days in the office.
In Urban Aphrodite's production, this part is split between two actors, with Dave Taylor playing it Thursdays and Fridays, and Mark Edwards on Saturdays and Sundays. We saw Taylor last night and he was probably the weakest link in the production. While the rest of the cast barged through their lines like angry bears, he pawed at them rather apprehensively. Of all the parts in the play, this is one that needs an animal behind it, someone to take the script in their teeth and feast. Taylor didn't have the passion on preview night.
The only other criticism we could level is with the acoustics of the space. They're not always ideal, especially with the music of Sasha's leaking through the floorboards. The actors need to project their voices or risk the audience struggling to catch some of the nuances of their dialogue. Some cast members did this well, again Paul Collins deserves praise, as well as Gerard DeBenedetto, but I struggled to hear a couple of the lines from Lenderking and Earl.
But this hardly gets in the way as the whole thing tears to its seedy conclusion. Funny, brutal and as uncomfortable as an ice pick between the eyes, this is excellent entertainment and one of the best pieces of English-language theater we've seen in Shanghai.
Urban Aphrodite's production of Glengarry Glenn Ross plays tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, plus next Thursday to Sunday in the theater space above Sasha's. Tickets are 220rmb on the door or 200rmb with an RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or 187 2152 8625. Doors open 7:30pm, curtain up at 8pm. Sasha's has a new autumn menu of bar snacks for those who want to eat before or after the performance. More on the play and maps to the venue here.
*All photos by Sigourney Chin