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'Glengarry Glen Ross' at Oregon Stage Works

Bill Langan is best-known to the Southern Oregon theater community for roles such as Titus Andronicus and Bottom the Weaver at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Now the longtime actor has put on a director's hat for the first time, helming the production of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" that will open Friday, Sept. 18, at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland.

The 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which was made into an all-star movie in 1992, follows four Chicago real estate agents who will do anything to close a deal. Their competition grows even more cutthroat when headquarters ups the stakes of their monthly sales contest. The winner will get a car, the runner-up will get steak knives, and the remaining two men will get fired.

The world of "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a world in which greed fuels desperation, and cheating the vulnerable is part of staying in the game. It's a world Langan says we can recognize in the recent market collapses and the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

"The land they're selling exists, but it's not worth what they're selling it for," he says. "It sounds a lot like the situation we find ourselves in today, in which risky loans were made and sold off to others who invested, and nobody was responsible.

"How we got in this is greed, anything to feed the monster."

Langan left the OSF after the 2006 season and worked in television in L.A. until the writers strike, during which he returned to Ashland, where he now works in development at OSF. OSW Artistic Director Peter Alzado said he wanted to present "Glengarry Glen Ross" and be in it but not direct it, so Langan leaped into the breach.

Alzado will play Ricky Roma, the manipulative salesman played by Al Pacino in the 1992 film. The cast also features Sam King, Dayvin Turchiano, David Dials and Joe Charter.

Langan says the loss of humanity the play depicts is heartbreaking. He says seeing it is a bit like seeing "Macbeth."

"It's the dark side of our nature," he says. "We need to see that as much as we need our comedies. It's where our darkest desires will take us. The salesmen are in a situation of eat or be eaten."

Another play that comes to mind is Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Langan says in rehearsals he couldn't help thinking of Miller's line that a salesman lives on a smile and a shoeshine.

"(Shelley 'the Machine') Levene is close to Willy Loman," he says. "The important thing is the effect the system has on these men. They're giving up their humanity. Every move they make costs them a piece of their humanity."

Mamet's dialogue, as usual, makes music out of bluster, panic and — famously — obscenities.

"He tells a lot about the characters by the way they use language," Langan says. "Levene's has sudden stops and changes of thought. Ricky Roma is slick, but Shelley is starting to lose something."

Langan has seen the play twice, including the original Broadway production. He says the dialogue is full of internal rhythms audiences wouldn't necessarily be aware of.

"He was writing on several levels," he says. "A lot of people will focus on the cursing. He's writing about this environment in which all civility is stripped away."

Langan says the swearing is integral to the characters. The way Mamet's people speak tells who they are, much as Shakespeare's characters' speeches do. All the foul-mouthed ranting shows men who have abandoned subtlety and compassion as they have reverted to their basest instincts.

Langan doesn't discourage anybody from seeing the play on account of language, except young children.

"These characters may not be 'you,'" he says, "but they are a part of 'us.' You may not like them, but if we do our work right, you'll care about what they are doing and what's been done to them in turn. That's what theater does best."

Langan is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and has spent 20 years as an actor with such companies as the Guthrie Theatre, the OSF and New York City's Public Theatre. Mamet's works include "American Buffalo" (1976) and "Speed the Plow" (1988) and are notable for their vivid male characters.

Reporter Bill Varble can be reached at bvarble@mailtribune.com or 776-4478.

David Dials (left) and Dayvin Turchianno appear in Oregon Stage Works' production of 'Glengarry Glen Ross.' - Photo by Jenny Graham