LOWELL — Watching Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ is a double-edged experience.
You feel the inward glow of satisfaction that comes from seeing a great play directed with insight and performed by a skilled ensemble. But you also feel a pang as you consider how many years it’s been since the playwright wrote anything nearly as good. It’s like seeing archival footage on ESPN of a no-hitter by a pitcher who has long since lost his fastball.
Merrimack Rep’s top-notch production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,’’ directed by Charles Towers, brings us back to a time before Mamet’s style calcified into mannerism, before he began to turn out gnarled, willfully opaque dramas like “The Anarchist,’’ a two-hander that deservedly flopped on Broadway earlier this season, and “Phil Spector,’’ the biopic that aired on HBO in March.
Nowadays, Mamet seems to have simply lost interest in the fundamental writer’s task of communication. By contrast, “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ (which was revived on Broadway this season, starring Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale) has trenchant things to say about the ruthlessness and venality of American business, and the way it says them is a dark joy to behold.
Along with 1975’s “American Buffalo,’’ this 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner about bottom-feeding real-estate salesmen in Chicago represents the purest distillation of Mamet’s trademark dialogue: those staccato exchanges, bursting with obscenities. (For some reason, Merrimack Rep has chosen to affix a sign on the box-office window that reads: “Please be advised: The characters in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ casually and profusely use extreme profanity throughout the play.’’ What’s next, warning audiences that the characters in “Hamlet’’ make casual and profuse use of iambic pentameter?)
To the salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross,’’ language is a means to an often unsavory end, a way to bamboozle or bewilder or just stay afloat. They may wear suits and ties and well-shined shoes, but these men are governed by the law of the jungle — eat or be eaten — as they vie against one another in a contest, foisted on them by their bosses, to sell properties in a pair of dubious real estate developments. Their jobs are on the line: The winner of the contest gets a Cadillac, and the bottom two get fired.
Towers builds and sustains an atmosphere of heated, high-stakes tension, turning the Merrimack Rep stage into an arena of close-quarters combat — a sensation augmented by Bill Clarke’s set for Act 1, a pair of tightly adjoining restaurant booths with red-leather banquettes, and Act 2, an office in a complete shambles.
Of all the salesmen, Shelly Levene, played by Will LeBow in an intense and deftly modulated performance, has the most to lose — not just his job, but his identity. For that reason, the aging Shelly comes the closest to being sympathetic. Nicknamed “the Machine’’ for his ability to close deals, he is on a losing streak, reduced to beseeching the office’s manager for better “leads,’’ or the names of solid prospective buyers. When Levene tells the manager, portrayed by David Adkins, “It’s cold out there now, John,’’ he’s ostensibly talking about homebuyers and the general economic climate, but the urgency in LeBow’s voice makes clear that Shelly is feeling a deeper chill. It’s impossible not to think of another salesman teetering on the brink of despair in an unforgiving economy, Willy Loman, or of the millions who struggled through the Great Recession and are still struggling.
By contrast, Ricky Roma is riding high, the top name on the office blackboard that keeps track of sales. Todd Licea’s Roma carries himself like a philosopher-king of real estate. He doesn’t so much schmooze a hapless client (Jeremiah Wiggins, excellent) as cast a spell on him, with a hard sell cunningly wrapped within a riddling disquisition on fate and free will and morality and life. Licea is uncannily good at conveying the predatory way Roma first seduces the client, then essentially holds him hostage through a combination of nimble verbal invention and subtle physical intimidation.
There are expert performances as well by Joel Colodner as a gruff police detective and by Charlie Kevin and Jim Ortlieb as the salesmen Moss and Aaronow. Moss is a fast-talking schemer, Aaronow is slow and fumbling, but they are both trapped, forced to compete on a field cruelly tilted against them.
That’s a familiar feeling today, with an economy that can only be described as precarious, and it lends a grim prescience to Mamet’s portrait of competition without end in a world without mercy.