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6/12/2005
Broadway Review: Victor Niederhoffer on Glengarry Glen Ross

Imagine if Warren Buffett and George Soros were to get together to collaborate on a play about Wall Street and the stock brokerage industry.

Both of them are animated by a holier-than-the-Pope attitude about their own rectitude and morality compared to the sleazy dishonesty of the industry. Both rail against the selfish desire of wealthy people to reduce their estate taxes and both long for a planned order where philosophic benevolent people such as they would stamp out the greed and the excesses that go with speculation.

Educated at a time when Thorsten Veblen's The Leisure Class, Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barrons, C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite and J. K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society were considered the best works on the history and effects of business, neither Buffett nor Soros has since read a book; nor have they kept up with modern developments in the fields of enterprise, Austrian economics, finance or mathematical science. And neither has ever operated a business, aside from the conglomerate of the former and the hedge fund of the latter. Both believe that selling by people other than themselves is a hornet's nest of deception, high-pressure techniques and destructive competition.

Both, however, have their ears tuned to popular culture, and have seen the play Death of a Salesman a few times, and in the former case taken in a touring production in Omaha of The Music Man.

Now suppose they got together to write a play.

The first scene would likely be about a Willy Loman type broker complaining that he can't sell the public any highfliers anymore and collect the old fixed commission rates.

The second scene would probably be about a Henry Blodget or Mary Meeker or Harold Hill type of salesman trying to hype a billion-dollar market value Internet company to the rhythm of the train scene -- "But he doesn't know the territory!" -- from the Music Man.  The scene would include side comments on how terrible the metrics really were, and how they secretly planned to sell companies without any music to them at all.

The third scene would probably be about a whistleblower talking to a friend about splitting the finder's fee for going to Spitzer or some such crusader with tales of excessive executive pay, smoothing of earnings or after-hours trading.

Finally the whole thing could come together in the second act with the company declaring bankruptcy and the Willy Loman type being taken to jail for a crime so much less than those the power elite, the establishment brokers, mutual funds, hedge funds, corporate executives and accountants were guilty of.

Doubtless such a play would win a Pulitzer Prize, receive rave reviews in every mainstream paper because of its accurate depiction of the greed of people trying to get rich or help others get rich, be made into a movie and run on Broadway every few years. If you were to picture such a play not about investments, but about the evils, the cons, the duplicity, the greed, the self-dealingness of the real estate industry, but instead of lowbrow "common folks" language, littered with trash talk, every other word a four letter one, you would have a good overview of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. It's a hateful play with no insights into the real estate brokerage industry it portrays, the incredible wealth achieved by all the people who actually bought real estate since its 1983 writing, or the valuable services that salesman and brokers provide.

In Mamet's withering indictment of American business, sales tactics, consumer choice and culture, the first act takes place in a Chinese restaurant rather than the Burger King (they don’t sell Coke® or Big Mac® s there) that the Sage might have chosen. The scene shows Shelly Levine as the Willy Loman type complaining about the quality of the leads he gets from his sales manager, and the vicious circle this puts him in. Needless to say the problem is solved by the manager's giving him "capacity" in return for 50% of his production. I felt a sense of deja vu here, recalling the allegations against the great California Bond Trading Fund.

The second scene shows underpaid salesmen suggesting to a mild mannered John Dean type that they burglarize the office by stealing all the leads and selling them to a conveniently culpable competitor. You see in the world of those who hate business, leads are not tracked, they don't relate to specific properties, they don't grow stale after a week or two, and competitors are always willing to steal them without fear of discovery. The third scene shows a star salesman pretending to let down his hair about self realization, relative morality and the joys of s-x, all as a ploy to reach a zone with his mark so that he can sell him some worthless Florida real estate. In this world the stocks and real estate bought in the 70's that are now worth on average of 20 times their original purchase price are all part of a big con, and the salesmen's efforts to close the sale are reprehensible examples of self-dealing.

The first act ended abruptly after half an hour and I wanted to leave, because the author had no understanding or appreciation of the subject he's writing about, failing to understand the information and adjustment and technical functions that all salesmen perform. But because I was with my daughter, dance teaching guest, and first wife, who was my star salesman when I ran a merger business, I stayed.

The second act is improbability upon improbability as the heist has taken place, the leads, folders, and phones have been stolen and the glass broken. the Willie Loman type has completed a fictitious sale, a spineless husband is conned into refusing to cancel a sale. An O. Henry'esque finish leads to the good guy's getting the short end once more.

Only a playwright whose audience consists mainly of salesmen and real estate brokers and normal Janes and Joes who envy all their friends who have made so much money by being "conned " into buying real estate that makes them multi-millionaires could find an ounce of believability in any of these completely incongruous wrong notes that would never occur in a million years in real life. There was a standing ovation at the end for the all male, all TV-star cast, marred by loud booing from an admirer of the American business system who wished to be exposed to more salesman in all walks of life, until I was silenced by Collab's discrete hand over my mouth.

Please, unless you wish to wallow in hateful anecdotes about the one-tenth of one percent of business that is dishonest and can stay in business notwithstanding such unethical practices, stay away from this destructive piece of propaganda.

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