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'The lines are weapons'

"If the play is a war of survival, then the lines are weapons." So says Bill Langan, director of Oregon Stage Works' upcoming production of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama, "Glengarry" is known for dialog that snaps and growls and themes that illuminate the darker corners of the American psyche.

The characters of "Glengarry," real estate salesmen who will do anything to close a deal, "inhabit a Darwinian world of 'eat or be eaten,'" Langan notes. "One would not have to look long to find a similar ecosystem among men who inhabit the boardrooms of New York, the halls of Congress or the studios of Los Angeles."

Langan, a former member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival acting company, now the festival's manager of major gifts, is excited about the opportunity to direct Glengarry. The sparseness of Mamet's stage directions — sometimes sparse to the point of not indicating precisely which characters are on stage in a scene — allows the director great latitude in staging.

Another reason to snap up the opportunity is the power of the language. Not only is the cadence reflective of a high-pressure sales environment, but the words twist and turn, often assuming contradictory meanings. "Talking" means blowing off steam in one line (We're just "talking" about it.) but morphs into conspiring to commit a crime a few lines later (You're actually talking about this?). The director says getting it right involves "a lot of table work" whereby the actors sit and grapple with the lines, thoroughly exploring inflection and nuance before getting up on stage. Stage Works Artistic Director Peter Alzado commented, "The play deals with adult themes, and as far as language is concerned — it's got it all!"

In the hyper-competitive world of "Glengarry," the salesmen are pitted against each other to bring in the greatest revenue each month. They go about their work by "cold calling" perspective clients based on names and numbers, the "leads" provided by the corporate headquarters. The best leads go to the salesman with the best numbers, so for the man at the bottom of the food chain, one Shelly Levene, a character who evokes Arthur Miller's Willie Lowman, the chances of getting ahead are slim to none.

"That the men in 'Glengarry' are unaware that their own competitive urges are harming themselves as well as others is part of what makes this story so poignant," Langan said, adding, "In this supercharged, cut-throat environment, each move they make — up or down — costs them a little piece of their humanity."

Langan speculates that audiences might not find Glengarry's characters very appealing. "This would be a problem for lesser actors, who would want to be liked by the audience," and might pitch their portrayals to elicit sympathy. He added that the actors in the Stage Works production are strong enough to trust the audience to respond based on an understanding of flawed characters unflinchingly portrayed.

Probably the most palatable character is Shelly Levene, played by David Dials. Inches away from being sacked, Levene may well bring to mind a friend or family member who has lost a job or a home — perhaps everything — in these tough economic times. Rick Roma, the silver-tongued top dog, is played by Peter Alzado, with Joe Charter as Lingk, Roma's client, buyer of a parcel of worthless Florida land. Richard Heller and Sam King play salesmen Aaronow and Moss, with Dayvin Turchianno as Williamson, the office manager, and Tim Kelly as Baylen, the detective called in when the real estate office literally becomes a crime scene.

"Glengarry" is widely considered to be the greatest achievement in a career that includes award-winning stage and screen work. Many familiar with the 1992 movie version, starring Alec Bladwin, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey, may also remember David Mamet's film adaptations of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981), "The Verdict" (1982), "The Untouchables" (1987) and "Wag the Dog" (1997).

"Glengarry Glen Ross" opens Sept. 18 at Oregon Stage Works, 191 A St. Proceeds from preview performances on Sept. 16 and 17 will be contributed to the Oregon Stage Works Local Actors Support Fund as a means to compensate the cast. The show runs through Oct. 19.