A lot of two-act plays actually fall right in line with the classic three-act structure. Glengarry Glen Ross is not one of those plays. You can make it work, and there definitely is a build in the play, but it's just not done in that good old traditional way. The way Mamet handles his Act 1 just kind of mixes things up. He doesn't build things like one block stacking on top of another, and instead he lets us get to know his characters two-at-a-time. The order of things works, but one scene doesn't necessarily build directly on anything from the scene before.
Anyway, we can still take a look at the three-act structure, even if it doesn't work out perfectly.
This is Mamet's Act 1—an Act entirely about character and exposition. In Mamet's Act 1 we get a taste of Levene's desperation, Williamson's disdain, Moss's anger, Aaronow's confusion, and Roma's slickness.
We also learn some things we need to know: There's a sales contest going on, and all of these guys are a part of it. Jobs are on the line. Moss thinks someone should break into the office and steal the leads, and Roma pitches a sale to Lingk.
By the end of Act 1, Mamet has planted all the seeds for what will happen in Act 2—he's just done it through dialogue and scenes where two people talk, as opposed to doing it through action. Seriously, when this play is done well, you could listen to these guys talk at each other for hours and not worry one way or the other if anything is really going to happen. Sure, this exchange might not get us anywhere plot-wise, but it still just hums when two really good actors play the scene:
MOSS: Yes. It is simple, and you know what the hard part is?
AARONOW: What hard part?
MOSS: Of doing the thing. The dif… the difference. Between me and Jerry Graff. Going to business for yourself. The hard part is… you know what it is?
MOSS: Just the act.
AARONOW: What act? (1.2.151-162)
Mamet's Act 1 snaps with the rhythm of these guys. We get to see the back and forth between them, and we know who they are (or at least we think we do) by the end of the Act. Characters have been built, plot points have been hit, and we're primed for a big event.
The classic Act II makes up a good portion of Mamet's Act 2. The office has been broken into, i.e. something has happened. Yay. Of course, we didn't see it happen since it happened during intermission while we were grabbing a Snickers bar or something. Remember that this is not a play about big action sequences though, so it's no surprise that the robbery takes place off stage.
The classic Act II takes us through about the time Moss makes his final departure from the office. The leads are gone, a cop's in the office, and tension is high, but it still seems like things might just work out fine for some of the guys. Levene comes in bragging about a huge sale, and Roma signed a deal with Lingk that put him over the top on the board. Looks like someone's got a sweet new car coming his way.
WILLIAMSON: It went down. I filed it.
ROMA: You did?
ROMA: Then I'm over the f***ing top and you owe me a Cadillac. (2.1.55-59)
So Roma is on top, and then Levene comes in with his great news about the sale. Tension is building with Moss and Aaronow, but it's not happening in a suspensful thriller kind of way—it's still just guys talking about work and life and taking shots at each other.
Things don't get too bad until Moss takes off, and this is probably the first time when we get a sense that not all of these guys are getting out of here so easy. After all, we heard Moss talking to Aaronow about breaking in, and Moss is angry (okay, even angrier than usual) and Aaronow seems really freaked out by the whole situation.
Moss takes his anger out on Roma and Levene, and then bolts for good:
MOSS: Who the f*** are you, Mr. Slick… ? What are you, friend to the workingman? Big deal. F*** you, you got the memory of a f***in' fly. I never liked you.
ROMA: What is this, your farewell speech?
MOSS: I'm going home.
ROMA: Your farewell to the troops?
MOSS: I'm not going home. I'm going to Wisconsin.
ROMA: Have a good trip.
MOSS: (simultaneously with "trip"): And f*** you. F*** the lot of you. F*** you all.
Moss exits. Pause.
ROMA (To Levene): You were saying?
Boom—Moss storms out in dramatic, obscenity-spouting fashion, Roma takes a beat, and we go right back to where we were before Moss's outburst.
Getting Moss out of the office and sending Aaronow to the back with the cop is a nice little trick Mamet pulls. The two guys we have seen talk about the robbery are now off stage, freeing us up to ignore the robbery for a while and just deal with what Roma and Levene have to say.
This leads us into what would be the classic Act 3.
We're still in Mamet's Act 2 (remember, this play only has two acts). Moss supposedly ran off to Wisconsin, and Aaronow is getting grilled by the cops. Roma is on top and Levene is back, baby. Despite the fact that there are no leads and no phones, things are looking pretty good for the two guys on stage. They talk about Levene's big time sale he just made and talk about the old days.
Then Lingk shows up. Ugh. Lingk is the dupe that Roma didn't quite finish off, and as soon as Roma sees Lingk approaching, he knows what's going to go down. So what does he do? Does he look to have an honest conversation with the guy he talked into buying a bunch of property? Of course not—this is Ricky Roma. Instead, he creates an elaborate scheme on the spot, and Levene jumps in without blinking:
Roma sees something outside the window.
ROMA (Sotto): You're a client. I just sold you five water-front Glengarry Farms. I rub my head, throw me the cue "Kenilworth."
LEVENE: What is it?
Lingk enters the office. (2.1.573-582)
Okay, so good-natured schlub Lingk steps in and tells Roma he has to cancel the contract and the check and the sale. Roma, being the consummate salesman that he is, does everything in his power to put Lingk off and focus on his fake client being portrayed by Levene.
In a rare show of fortitude though, Lingk won't take no for an answer, and not even the dizzying Mamet-speak that Roma throws his way can make Lingk go away. Roma assures Lingk that the check hasn't even been cashed and the contract hasn't been filed, so they have plenty of time to deal with the situation.
Things start to get a little crazy when Aaronow comes out of the back office, and the cop starts shouting for Levene who (you remember) is pretending to be a client of Roma's. Seriously—this thing could go the way of farce if it gets any more out of control, but Roma won't give in to the chaos. He has to hold onto the sale he closed with Lingk.
Here is just a glimpse of Mamet at his circular, infuriating best. Roma does all he can to use empty speech to buy himself some time and save the deal with Lingk:
LINGK: It's not me, it's my wife.
ROMA (Pause): What is?
LINGK: I told you.
ROMA: Tell me again.
LINGK: What's going on here?
ROMA: Tell me again. Your wife.
LINGK: I told you.
ROMA: You tell me again. (2.1.822-829)
Roma's verbal gymnastics seem to be working—Lingk isn't willing to just go away, and he seems like he might be willing to let Roma talk to his wife to see what the problem is (Roma is that good). Either way, we see that Roma might be able to stall Lingk long enough for the check/contract to go through without Lingk being able to do anything.
But then Williamson enters, and all hell breaks loose. That's kind of what Williamson is all about—being a seemingly mild-mannered middle manager who destroys all those around him. Not a bad gig, we guess, since he is the one who always seems to come out on top in the end.
So Williamson enters not really knowing the situation. He assures Lingk that his check and contract went through and weren't affected by the robbery. Agh—this is the exact opposite of what Roma needed him to say after spending so much time trying to convince Lingk that nothing has been filed.
Even Lingk isn't foolish enough to stick around now, and he hightails it out of there, telling Roma not to follow him. The deal is a bust. You know what feels good in a situation like this? Yelling at Williamson (apparently).
Roma and Levene light into Williamson, but eventually Roma has to go to the back office to talk to the cop, so Levene takes the yelling-at-Williamson project upon himself. Levene just can't keep his mouth shut, and this is what takes him down and brings us to the climax of the play:
LEVENE: You're going to make something up, be sure it will help or keep your mouth closed. (Pause)
WILLIAMSON: How do you know I made it up? (1.2.1017-1022)
That's it—Williamson has got him now. If Levene could have taken his own advice and kept his mouth closed, maybe things would have shaken out differently. We'll never know though, because that one little line sealed his fate.
Levene knew Williamson was lying about filing the contract and cashing the check, because he knew the contract was still on Williamson's desk. How'd Levene know? Because he saw the contract on Williamson's desk when he was breaking into the office to steal the leads.
The mystery is now solved, and Levene's journey is complete. He wanted to get back in the game, but instead, he's finished for good. All that's left in the play is Aaronow asking for leads and complaining about the job, and Roma heading over to the Chinese restaurant.