Glengarry Glen Ross: final notes on playing Levene

The run has ended. Most evening performances were sold out, it appears and all performances were well-attended.

I played Sheldon “The Machine” Levene in a bespoke dark grey suit; the only reason I can afford bespoke is that I live in Hong Kong and was lucky to find Bobby’s Fashions on the Carnarvon Road in Tsim Sha Shue.

I was selected to play a “leading” role (Levene has the largest number of lines and the play is his de-centered, drive-by tragedy) through a fluke as described below.

I suffered agonies last Tuesday, opening night, for my only previous onstage experience had been the “Richard III seduces the Lady Anne” scene in reader’s theater. I had literally no idea whether the lines would come or the lines would go, and I’d had great difficulties in memorization until a cast member, who’s studied pro theater extensively, demonstrated muscle memory.

Although my dance training helps, I was the largest object on a small set in the Fringe Theater and had no idea whether my native clumsiness, which I was hoping against hope would be counteracted by my dance practice, would cause me to knock over the flimsy set or fall, with a despairing cry, into the orchestra…fortunately, there was no orchestra, and all went well.

Indeed, with the approval of the director, I’d “choreographed” Levene’s entrance in scene 5 (“get the chalk, I closed the cocksucker”) as a Baryshnikov leap. Then, last Monday, I arrived backstage at the Fringe and, to my horror, I realized that I had two launching pads for this stunt, both of them built by foul trolls from the Dark Ages.

I could squeeze between the front board of the back stage, over a strut, and run first to the left and forward, and then, turn, and leap, hopefully not crashing into the coffee machine.

But this would mean that the audience would first here my hoofbeats unless I said “get the chalk” more than once (something that Jack Lemmon does in the film), and it was also a longer and therefore statistically more perilous stunt.

So, I went into a box out of audience line of sight behind the “bar”. For seven shows running in five days, I would either take a half seen leap over the box’s strut or run round it, push off with the left foot, and land in the middle of the cast who, fortunately enough, knew I was due to land just after Roma gets off her lines about “Vishnu and Siva”.

I lined up with a seam on the floor that was down stage of the coffee machine and arrived safely each time. Nyah ha ha. Barishnikov does it in tights, I do it in a business suit.

Muscle memory and dance-inspired delivery of Levene’s complex lines were the key. I waited for the “Williamson” actor, the lovely and talented Carman Ng, to say the word “marshal” as in “marshal the leads” and broke out into a dance of mockery and frustration because the ordinary slob knows then the language is being trashed by management-speak.

“Marshal the leads? What the fuck, what bus did you get off of, we’re here to fucking sell.”

The parade marshal’s gesture I then turn into an unspeakably vulgar Chicago gesture that means “you’re jerkin’ me off” that produced titters and gasps in some shows.

My biggest fans in the seven audiences were large, jolly Western men. One said to my line “they ain’t even been in the office yet today”, “bullshit, they have too!” because in the production, scene 1 (Blake’s abusive sales lecture) flows direct into scene 2 (Levene begs Williamson for good leads).

After expressing fear and frustration with Moss and Aaronow in scene 1, I had to stay on stage, walk to a stool practically within inches of the first audience row, sort of crumple in frustration, but then (since when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro) go direct into my attempt to sales-talk Williamson: “Jane, Jane, Jane, ok, look, the Glengarry Leads, you’re sending Roma out.”

In fact the crumple on the stool between scene 1 and 2 was designed by me, with the director’s approval of course, as a foreshadowing of the way, in scene 5, I collapse, in sobs, after getting a “fuck you” in response to “my daughter”.

That scene 5 business was an emotional wringer. I put my head in my hands and let it out. I then realize Roma is in the room. I take a deep breath, inches, in full house productions, from the front row and silently vocalize the Kaddish words “praised lauded magnified exalted”; I’m not Jewish but Levene and Mamet are.

I followed this with barely perceptible “dovening”, the back and forward rocking of the Jewish prayer. Then stillness…Roma is saying, “we’re a dying breed”. The preparation permitted me to grin sadly when Roma refers to the way she and I, in the persona of D Ray Morton, had fooled Lingk.

Doing “D Ray Morton”, the phony “Vice President of European Sales and Service for American Express” was also tough, because I have to turn in a heartbeat from addressing the world on the iniquities of Mitch and Murray to listening to Roma tell me what to do.

I should have had my head examined for doing this, but it appears that “I did it, I did it, like I was taught, like I used to do, I did it.” Money? It didn’t cost me anything, as Henslowe promises the lads in Shakespeare in Love, and it was a free class in acting that will help me to get film work.

Levene’s management and motivation speak has to be delivered by speaking the lines not only with 100% accuracy (something which I did not attain in all performances) but also with rapid shifting as if you are driving a manual transmission car in the mountains at 90 mph.

Mamet did not write “No, Jane, no. Let’s wait, let’s back up here. I did-will you please? Wait a second please” as a sort of general guideline, more as atonal music which demands perfection.

Levene alternates fragments with highly grammatical and rather complex management/motivation-speak. When Williamson mockingly says “you want something off the B list”, it being an open secret in the office that the B list contains deadbeats and “Indians”, Levene, who’s invested in the idea that it’s fundamentally a fair game, first explodes, in my version and then says, precisely, “At the very least, that I am entitled to, if I am still working here, which for the moment I guess I am.”

A “sentence diagram” or “parse tree” of this would show it to be above the complexity of Moss’s lines to Aaronow. In Scene 2, Moss gets Aaronow to be an accessory before the fact by means of very short, step by step lines; he lets her know of a planned crime, he gets her to promise to not go to the police.

Whereas Levene in my version, stands, legs apart, suit jacket unbuttoned, arms akimbo in a classic film noir “men in the city” pose and clearly lets Williamson know that he stands on a platform, while using the prepositional phrase “for the moment” to convey the fact that he, Levene, knows the score:

How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope,
If not what resolution from despare.

(Milton, Paradise Lost)

Mamet appears to me at this point to have designed scene 2 and 5 as a matched set. In both, for example, Levene has to pull out his wallet, in scene 2 to see if he can pay Williamson’s demand, in scene 5 to offer Williamson some of the money Levene’s made from the caper.

On the Hong Kong stage, the lights illumine our more colorful money and I could only hope my thin wad of pink one hundreds would evoke, in scene 5, a stack of Hong Kong thousand dollar bills.

But in scene 5, Levene also has to be still, and react subtly, to support Roma to build their relationship to the point where it’s believable that Roma (whose affability is real but completely in self-interest) would try to intervene with Baylen the cop.

Was I trying to make a Statement? I dunno. I remember stacking books on sales and accounting in the Roosevelt University bookstore because steelworkers of the 1950s wanted their kids to have respectable jobs. Communism exalts the manual laborer, only C Wright Mills gave the white collar true recognition.

I hope, if one can hope for the subjunctive and counter-factual, that Adorno would have liked it.

Did it work? Well, do we all have to be shrewd, self-interested, focused tough cookies, Adorno’s Tough Baby? Must we always use language in Habermas’ second sense, twisting it to serve an end, and never using it to communicate the truth, even of a work situation, with our work-mates, even as Jules, in Pulp Fiction, says, we should have shotguns for this job, my days of forgettin’ is over?

I do know this. My next role shall “condole in some measure”, I’m thinking of Flopsy Bunny for children’s theater, or Ariel in the Tempest.

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