WILLIAMSVILLE — Rock River Players (RRP) revels in the eclectic. From Mary Chase's Harvey offered earlier this fall to David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize–winning Glengarry Glen Ross [story, this issue], opening Nov. 10, is about as far a stretch as one could make in modern American theater. Players' fare is as diverse as its Players.
According to director Bahman Mahdavi, Glengarry Glen Ross is "masterfully written - an unrelenting story of small-time, cutthroat real estate salesmen trying to grind out a living by pushing plots of land on reluctant buyers."
"We enter the coarse and unforgiving world of 1980s real estate sales and, in classic Mamet fashion, characters speak in speedy, fragmented bursts and bulldoze their way through one another in what is ultimately one long, desperate struggle for dominance."
Mahdavi, with Amy Donahue, is co-artistic director of the Rock River Players which, with this production, celebrates the installation of a new lighting system made possible with the support of the Williamsville Hall Committee and the Newfane Selectboard.
Before a recent rehearsal, I had a chance to talk with members of RRP's company for this play: Jim Bombicino, Alan Darling, James Gelter, Phil Kramer, Jon Mack, Adrienne Major, John Moran, and John Ogorzalek. Cherie Moran is assistant director; Peter Broussard is on lights.
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Annie Landenberger: Can somebody tell me why this play? Why now?
Adrienne Major: I feel like this play is really important to do right now because it exposes the roots of contemporary culture. It gives us a place where greed is good and the motivating force behind action - action without morality - becomes acceptable.
I think we need to remind ourselves that we've been living in this culture that recognizes and rewards amorality for quite some time. Bringing us to the mid-'80s and surfacing this position is important: It draws a direct line to where we are today
James Gelter: There are a lot of classic plays that are like "oh, that poor downtrodden white man" or "that hero of a white man," and those stories don't particularly appeal to me these days.
But a show like this - [one] that asks, "How f-d up are these white guys?" - is still very much something that is relevant and through which I can help contribute to the current conversation.
Jon Mack: I think it's an important piece to do. We can't forget the violence and the level of desperation that the greed-oriented culture we live in produces. I think depicting that is worth doing.
To have, as an actor, a piece that has this kind of substance and is brilliantly crafted and really gives an actor an opportunity to be a person - a full-fledged, [three-dimensional, tortured or torturing] person, not a caricature - I find really exciting.
Phil Kramer: These characters we're portraying - their voices are living inside many of us. Sometimes they're hidden behind masks of propriety and honor, but I believe a lot of people's deep-down motivations in society are represented by these less-than-desirable characters.
Cheri Moran (to Kramer): One of your lines is: "What is this? Courtesy class?"
Jim Bombicino: As an actor, it's just a tremendous challenge to do this piece: It's the kind of thing you do where you don't even care if people will come. You do it because you feel like it needs to be done.
As a play, it's like a dope slap to humanity. It's like, "Wake up, people! This could have been ... was ... is real. Appreciate what you have - with the right attitude - and appreciate humanity in what we do."
John Moran: The play is sad, in a sense. There's a touch of Death of a Salesman in the character of Levene. He's attempting to live a life and take care of his daughter. I think all of them have bought into a system that is screwing them in the process. And the characters are all trying to do their best in a system that is not based on human values.
Alan Darling: Part of it's desperation. I see more businesses than you can imagine in my work. [Darling is a private executive search consultant.] I worked for one guy who's as sleazy as these people, but I've never seen this level of sleaze in the real world. There are a couple parts [in the play] that are just hilarious. Some people won't think of this as a comedy, but if people aren't breaking up when they hear some of this stuff....
Landenberger: I guess it goes without saying that this is a big murky slice of Americana. The play wouldn't fly in a socialist country, I don't imagine, except as an exemplar. What about its essential American flavor?
Gelter: One tagline for the original production was "exposing the dark side of the American Dream." Which it does - in two ways: it's the salesman falsely selling the American Dream to dupes but also [the salesmen] are doing that in pursuit of the American Dream themselves - this is the system that will allow them to do that.
Bahman Mahdavi: I moved to the U.S. when I was 30 and I have always, always been fascinated by American culture. When I was growing up I loved American music, movies, Americans' attitude toward life. The way they go through life - at least the way I perceived it - there was something very relaxed and straightforward, as opposed to the British, whose education I grew up in, which was more contrived, stiffer.
For me, The Front Page [which Mahdavi directed in fall 2022 for RRP] was a quintessential American story; this is another one. Not that there aren't scams elsewhere in the world, not that there aren't ass-s anywhere in the world, but this flavor, this sauce, only exists in America.
Landenberger: It's said that David Mamet would ride the city buses of Chicago recording random snippets of dialogue as a study in verisimilitude. What's challenging - beside all the f-words - about the play's language?
Mack: Among other things, it does capture the way people talk.
People don't end their sentences, they cut each other off - it feels real, and he definitely has captured that. The challenge is he's very repetitive, which is tricky for an actor.
Gelter: The script is dedicated to [20th century playwright] Harold Pinter. Mamet is drawing this fine line between the absurdism of Pinter's language and this sense of it feeling real and natural. [...] There's a precision to the language like you get in Dickens or Shakespeare, but it's much harder to memorize.
Bombicino: And none of these characters are really listening to each other. I think that's why there is so much talking over each other. How many times do we say "hold it a second" or "wait, wait, wait"?
Gelter: I haven't done any contemporary theater in really long time; I've just been doing old-school classics. That's like performing classical music, and this is like performing jazz - it requires the same level of attention to detail and really working in sync with the rest of the band but the music itself is very different.
John Ogorzalek: Then, not only do you cut off people in the middle of sentences, in every other line you cut off people in the middle of a word. It's a challenge. That's the reason I did it.
Darling: John's part barely has a full sentence without an interruption ....
Cheri Moran: But his one full sentence does end the play.
Mahdavi: If I may: I consider Mamet to be one of the greatest writers. Period. Not "of the 20th century," not "alive today." He's a fantastic writer who will be remembered for many centuries. This is the second play of his I'm directing; I've read all of his plays and prose, seen all his movies. I'll probably leave it at that and move on to something else.
Landenberger: And in closing...
Mahdavi: … I just want to express my deepest gratitude to the amazing cast for trusting me on this adventure, for all their incredible hard work, dedication, passion, and talent.
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Performances of Glengarry Glen Ross take place Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10 and 11, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m., at Williamsville Hall on Dover Road in Williamsville, and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17 and 18, at 7 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro.
The Williamsville Hall is accessible. Tickets are $12 ($10 for students and seniors). To purchase tickets in advance, visit rockriverplayers.org.
The show contains adult language and portrayals of racism and sexism. The Rock River Players warn that it's not appropriate for those younger than 16 years old.
Annie Landenberger is an arts writer and columnist for The Commons. She remains involved with the Rock River Players, the community theater that she founded and directed for years. She also is one half of the musical duo Bard Owl, with partner T. Breeze Verdant.
This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.