Williamson and Levene are sitting in a booth at a Chinese restaurant (where the entirety of Act One takes place). Levene, a real estate salesman, is trying to convince Williamson, his boss, to give him the desirable sales leads for the Glengarry Highlands development, which are the newest and best leads in their office—the prospective customers most likely to buy. Levene tries to convince Williamson that although he has himself had a streak of bad luck lately, he is still a master salesman.
Levene cites his record, regaling Williamson with tales of his success selling lots at another development, Glen Ross Farms, back in 1965. Levene suggests that Williamson ask Mitch and Murray, the heads of the company, about his record. Williamson, however, tells Levene that he cannot give him the Glengarry leads before the end of the month. Levene needs to make a sale before then, to get on the board—the chalkboard where the office keeps track of each employee's monthly sales. Levene knows that the two worst performing salesmen will be fired at the end of the month. If he does not make the board, he will surely be one of the men who loses his job.
Williamson explains to Levene that giving him better leads would be a violation of company policy. Williamson can only give the best leads to the salesmen who are making the most sales. Of course, as Levene is not on the board, he only gets second-rate leads, which will make it very difficult for him to make a sale and get back on the board—a classic vicious circle.
Desperate, Levene offers Williamson a ten percent kickback on his commissions if Williamson will give him the hot leads. Williamson makes a counteroffer: he will give Levene the Glengarry leads for a twenty percent kickback, plus fifty dollars cash per lead. Levene agrees, anxious to go out on sits (sales pitches) right then, but Williamson insists on the cash up front. Williamson will give Levene two leads for a hundred dollars. Williamson refuses to split them, perhaps for bureaucratic reasons, though the only explanation he offers is "Because I say so." Levene does not have that much cash on him.
Levene makes his last pathetic attempts at persuading Williamson. He begins to say something about his daughter, suggesting that he is going to tell a sob story about needing to keep his job for her sake, but Williamson cuts him off. Levene then lashes out, telling Williamson that it was not too long ago that he could have called Murray and had Williamson fired. Williamson gets up to leave. Levene realizes that he has lost this battle, and asks for one of the bad leads from the B list.
Mamet provides only sparse stage directions in this scene, a sparseness that persists through the rest of the play. We know that Levene and Williamson sit in a booth at a Chinese restaurant, but we have almost no other physical description of the scene. Mamet's lack of interest in anything beyond the bare minimum in stage direction demonstrates his belief that—particularly in business culture—action happens primarily through speech.
Shelly Levene is a man who finds himself losing the gift of persuasive speech. The very first words of the play demonstrate this loss: "John John John. Okay. John. John. Look: (Pause.)" Before we know anything about who he is or what he wants, we know that Levene is stammering, nervous, and having trouble keeping John Williamson's attention. These first words set the tone for Levene's persisting desperation. His inability to use words effectively eventually dooms him.
Levene tries all manner of ploys to get Williamson to give him the hot leads he wants. Sometimes he pleads, sometimes he acts aggressively, but nothing sways Williamson. Williamson has far fewer lines than Levene in this scene; he mostly just lets Levene babble fruitlessly and cuts him off when necessary. Williamson is the classic "company man," and Levene stands no chance of convincing him to break company policy.
The policy, of course, rewards success with further opportunity for success, and punishes failure by minimizing the opportunity for success. So a good salesman like Roma, whom we meet later, has an easy time continuing his hot streak, while an ineffective salesman like Levene is effectively shut out. The experiences of Levene and Roma serve as a microcosm of capitalist society: the surest route to success in American business is to be successful already. Competition is brutal and relentless, and any small failure greatly increases the chances of further failure. The rules are cruel, unforgiving, and, as exemplified by Williamson's indifference to Levene's struggles, compassionless.
When Williamson talks about marshalling the leads, Levene gets upset and responds: "That's 'talk,' my friend, that's 'talk.' Our job is to sell." Levene uses the word "talk" pejoratively, to imply meaningless chatter, hot air; he implies that what he does, as a salesman, is elevated above "talk." Levene's talk, however, does not impress Williamson any more than Williamson's talk impresses Levene.
For all of Levene's attempts to persuade, or sell, Williamson, the only thing that gets Williamson's attention is the offer of twenty percent of Levene's commissions plus fifty dollars per lead. Cash, not talk, piques Williamson's interest. Significantly, however, even when Williamson and Levene have reached this kickback agreement, Williamson still tries to make the things difficult for Levene by insisting on the cash up front and refusing to split up the two leads. Williamson is toying with Levene, and we sense that, despite his all-business attitude, Williamson actually wants to see Levene fail.
Levene, having lost the sales abilities of his youth, now thoroughly exudes desperation. Just as the company's sales contest ensures that bad luck will beget further bad luck, Levene's aura of failure makes Williamson treat him contemptuously. Williamson appears to have emotionally internalized the company's business policy: failure is to be feared, hated, punished, and shut out.
The play's unusual title comes from this scene. In passing, Levene mentions both Glengarry Highlands, the new, hot property from which the salesmen are selling lots, and Glen Ross Farms, a property that is now old and unimportant, but was hot back in 1965. Even though hotshot Roma gets to sell Glengarry, and no one wants to sell the passé Glen Ross, no real difference exists between the two developments. Mamet signals this lack of difference by giving the developments almost identical names. These names are all we have to go on; the salesmen in the play almost certainly have never been to the developments, and the people to whom they sell lots have never been there either. To the salesmen, the difference between Glengarry and Glen Ross means the difference between success and failure. Mamet suggests that for these men, success and failure rest in the meanings that get attached to meaningless words.