PLAYING AROUND: All Night Long, Glengarry Glen Ross, Death of a Salesman

Of all the West Coast avant-gardiana that has made its way to New York (Soon 3, Laura Farabough, Antenna Theater, Adele Shank's Winterplay, The Way of How), the one that's travelled best is John O'Keefe's All Night Long, which has been brilliantly directed by Andre Gregory at the Second Stage. It's a sort of suburban Dream Play that turns the nuclear family inside out so all their dreams, fears, and ghosts are showing. The mother and father are Jack and Jill, and the three kids (one of which was hatched from some leftovers NASA sent over) have names from kitschy '60s pop: Eddy, Tammy, and Terry. All Night Long is definitely the work of someone who grew up on The Jetsons, The Addams Family, and Father Knows Best rather than Death of a Salesman.

The play is a bizarre and funny mixture of direct-address monologues, sitcom spoof, and fantastic theatrical images (a hall of doors that gives way to heaven, a clock stuck at two minutes to midnight -- too much plutonium in the Pringles?). There's no plot to speak of; you're basically looking at life on another planet and trying to figure out how things work. I'm sure it would be a boring overextended joke if badly played but Gregory has coaxed lucid and daring performances out of a terrific bunch of actors -- Gerry Bamann as the jowly workadaddy and Yuk-Yuk, the clown who cohabits his body, that good actress Mary McDonnell in a surprise comic turn, Catherine Coray, Michael Riney, and eleven-year-old scene-stealer Alyssa Jayne Milano. Adrianne Lobel's set has a mind of its own, and Susan Hilferty's costumes -- a panic of stripes -- is especially witty. If you're up for seeing something you've never seen before in the theater, this is it.

A comedy about the real estate business would have to be about getting screwed, so it's no wonder that practically every other word in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (at the Golden Theater) is fuck. Fuck this, fuck that, fuck him, fuck you. And in macho America -- the milieu for almost all Mamet's plays, whether they're specifically set in a Chicago pawnshop, a Merchant Marines ship on Lake Superior, or a New York subway -- getting fucked means losing your manhood. Glengarry Glen Ross is a wicked comedy about emasculation.

The play begins with three scenes in a Chinese restaurant. A senior salesman is getting screwed by the mild-mannered office manager who's giving him shitty "leads" -- names of prospective real estate buyers, or rather suckers for the clearly less than first-rate plots in Florida being peddled out of this storefront office. A pissed-off salesman tries to talk a nebbishy colleague into screwing the bosses by burglarizing the office, stealing their list of leads, and selling them t a competitor. The star salesman, passing himself off as just another loud-mouthed stranger at the next table, greases up the orifice of his next prospective customer.

These intertwined tales play themselves out the next morning in the grimy, concrete-lined real estate office itself, which has indeed been broken into. (The opening of the second act is a wonderful sight joke. This inside job was no discreet maneuver -- the plate glass window has been smashed, file folders are strewn everywhere, and even the phones have been stolen!) The beleaguered old salesman arrives triumphant from a big sale, which he describes in terms approaching religious conversion if not group sex, and announces, "I've got my balls back." The customer who'd been railroaded into a sale at the Chinese restaurant comes crawling in on his wife's orders to cancel the deal, whimpering with all the guilt of an unsuccessful consumer (and deballed husband), "I don't have the negotiate." The big-mouthed salesman tries to flimflam the schmuck into thinking he has time before his check clears the bank, but the office manager, trying to be helpful (or is he?), steps in and blows the scam. "You fucking cunt," screams the humiliated salesman after the would-be victim has slithered away. The final act of emasculation occurs when the office manager informs the reballed old man that the people he'd closed the deal with were known wackos whose checks had been rubber for years.

If some of this plot sounds awfully familiar, the only surprise is that it's taken Mamet so long to rewrite American Buffalo, his first major play and still his finest. Probably the best thing about both plays is that they depict not high finance but a grubbier, more common, less well-examined workaday world, where the stakes of power and corruption are often absurdly low; the office manager is willing to sell good leads for a paltry $50, and the wild man is willing to knock off his own office for a mere $5000. Probably the best thing about Greg Mosher's production of Glengarry Glen Ross (which began at Chicago's Goodman Theater before going to Broadway) is that while the events and behavior are scrupulously detailed and realistic, there are Pinteresque moments of menacing stillness in the second act where almost anything could happen, letting the play -- and the audience -- breathe a different air, a gust of theatrical mystery.

The play is superbly performed by seven grizzled, unpolished American men, but when it's all over Mamet's points about business and American manhood seem strong, sensible, and terribly obvious. Even the plot twist is logical in its unexpected emergence. I much preferred Mamet's Edmond (see Off-Broadway last year) in which a modern-day Woyzeck goes to hell, literally gets fucked by a black man and finds God -- in other words, a play that transcended realistic drama altogether.

As for the other salesman play running, well, it's not so much a performance as a stunt by Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man as an old Jew with eyeglasses for "character." It gets pretty dull pretty quickly and makes the play less than an esteemed American classic than a dreary trip to the kitchen sink. A star is born in this Death of a Salesman, though, in John Malkovich -- already a culture hero to those who caught his dementia in True West Off-Broadway but now giving a beautiful, highly original, impossibly poetic performance in his Broadway debut.

New York Beat, April 25, 1984