12/10/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

First Nighter: Pacino, Cannavale Pump Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross Masterpiece

Al Pacino deserves a great big hand for his performance in the Glengarry Glen Ross revival at the Gerald Schoenfeld -- and not just for his drop-dead-gorgeous turn as aging real estate salesman Shelly Levene in desperate need of good leads to raise his placement on the office totem pole. Whether Pacino was aware of it or not, in some lip-smacking press coverage he was the victim of quite a pre-opening drubbing for deficient preview performances.

Supposedly he was having trouble remembering lines, hardly an unlikely happenstance when it comes to the unusually intricate dialogue that revered dramatist David Mamet is known -- and celebrated -- for concocting. The buzz had it that Pacino was being acted-off-the-stage-blah-blah-blah by fellow performers.

Maybe he was. This reviewer wasn't there to agree or disagree. But if so, the explanation has to be that the man -- who probably likes being a movie star but also loves the stage or else wouldn't return to it so often -- was merely taking his time getting fully into character. Anyone who knows anything about acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavski's method, this type of development isn't unheard of. And isn't Pacino a devoted member of the Actors Studio, where the Russian impresario's An Actor Prepares is something of a bible? Doesn't he run the institution with Ellen Burstyn?

(Whether ticket buyers should pay full -- rather than reduced -- prices while the process is in flow is a question for another time, as is the issue of whether under certain circumstances rehearsal periods should be extended before previews begin.)

Whatever was happening, the result as of the notoriously delayed opening is that Pacino's Shelly Levene is now an utterly complete and unforgettable character, a man wriggling as desperately as a worm on a fishhook. First encountered trying to finagle a break from the office manager in a cheap Chinese restaurant (Eugene Lee designed this version) where the Glengarry Glen Ross men hang out, Levene increasingly gets himself in hot water.

The miscalculation that looks as if it'll finish him off, however, doesn't come to light until after he believes he's made an $82,000 killing by getting a couple, Bruce and Harriet Nyborg, to buy twelve units in an evidently hard-to-sell and questionable property. Pacino's lengthy second-act description of how he closed the deal is a piece of acting so astonishing it's unlikely anything comparable will be seen on Broadway through the end of the season.

At its aftermath, when Levene's triumph is undercut, Pacino does something rarely if ever observed on stage, something devastating to watch: He produces all the signs of a man having a stroke.

Though Pacino's turn may not be matched elsewhere, it does come close to being equaled by Bobby Cannavale as Richard Roma. It's the part that usually guarantees a Tony or similar prize for anyone playing it. When Roma is initially spotted at "the Chinks," as he calls it, he also gets to deliver one of playwright Mamet's masterful arias -- this one of such logorrheic sprawl that it, too, deserves a huge response.

Seen in the office in the second act -- a burglary has taken place, and audience members think they know who's pulled it off -- Roma is the slickly confident, slightly menacing one. What's required of Cannavale is precisely what he brings brought to it. Sinister as hell on the just-ended Boardwalk Empire season and soon to head the 2013 stage adaptation of Clifford Odets's The Big Knife, Cannavale also manages to suggest the thin strain of uncertainty men of this ilk often carry.

Incidentally, it's a good idea to keep one eye on him when Pacino is wiping up the stage with his account of manipulating the Nyborgs. Here's another riveting instance of actor's joy. Certainly, Cannavale is responding as Roma to Levene, but as he observes Pacino, it's possible to detect awe at what a colleague is accomplishing three feet away.

Though the spotlight lingers long on Pacino and Cannavale, it does sweep regularly to other members of the Glengarry Glen Ross space -- and if director Daniel Sullivan has asked, or allowed, the ensemble to hurl themselves way over the top, more power to him and them.

They're portraying wildly disparate, frustrated fellow salesmen Dave Moss (John C. McGinley) and George Aaronow (Richard Schiff), office manager John Williamson (David Harbour) and client/dupe James Lingk (Jeremy Shamos). Each of them seizes his minutes and moments with the tenacity of a guard dog thrown a hunk of bloody meat. As police officer Baylen on hand to get to the bottom of the break-in, Murphy Guyer adds to the prevailing thesping steam heat.

Now thirty years on, Glengarry Glen Ross remains -- in this writer's view -- the best American play of the 1980s. It may be that some of the under-handed sales ploys used then are outdated. Hardly a thing of the past, however, is the behavior of men at their wits' end in an unresponsive social climate.

As Mamet sees them, the soulless fellows -- none of whom has much, if anything, to say about his life outside the office -- represent an entire population of contemporary American males. His playwright's accomplishment is holding up a mirror to their despair so that the image displayed is damning yet sympathetic, judgmental without being entirely contemptuous. As a group, they're simultaneously responsible but not responsible for the moral morass in which they find themselves.

Contributing hugely to the manner in which their distress is expressed is Mamet's language, which is, of course, laden with obscenities. Interrupting themselves, repeating themselves, cutting each other off, their outpourings, whether halting or rapid, make dissonant music, the music of modern male bonding and alienation. Read the play on the page -- which I did before I saw the first production -- and you're treated to a fabulous modern tone poem.

Less that a week ago, Mamet sucker-punched Manhattan with his newest work, The Anarchist, and in return was critically lambasted. As unrewarding as that one is, that's how superlative this work -- and this production -- is.