Discuss the differences in structure between Act One and Act Two. How do they work together?
Each of the three discrete scenes in Act One consists of one character trying to sell another character on an idea. None of the scenes are presented in the form of traditional sales pitches, and none of them repeats the others' language. However, by presenting the three scenes as a triptych of dialogues all set in the same restaurant, Mamet draws out the similarities and differences between the three situations. He illustrates that Levene, Moss, and Roma each have very different methods of persuasion. It is an almost scientific approach to storytelling.
In Act Two, Mamet switches to more conventional dramatic strategies. Though he has proved himself capable of holding an audience's attention with compelling characterization alone, he starts off the second act with immediate dramatic tension. We wonder who has committed the robbery at the office and whether the culprit will be caught. With characters entering and exiting in unpredictable fashion, the action in the second act is more complex, even though it uses a more transparent construction. Mamet takes the information he gave us in the first act and puts it at the service of energetic and tense drama in the second.
All of the characters in the play resent the business practices of their company. What does each character do as a result of his frustrations? Why? Do any of the characters' actions undermine the system they are trapped in, or do they only fortify the system?
For all their grumbling, the characters actually do very little to try to change the system that oppresses them. Moss rails against a system in which salesmen only earn a ten percent commission on their sales, but then offers Aaronow only thirty-three percent of the take from a crime that he wants Aaronow to commit by himself. Moss proposes the crime to Aaronow not as an opportunity for personal gain but as an opportunity to strike back at their oppressors, Mitch and Murray. Stealing the leads may theoretically hurt Mitch and Murray, but there is hypocrisy in Moss's proposition. Though he claims to hate a system that mistreats men as theirs does, his plan uses the exact tactics of the system he says he hates.
All of the characters despise the system, but when the system offers an opportunity to exploit a coworker, they take it. Though we do not admire their treachery, we do understand it. The one salesman who never plots against any of the others—who, in fact, seems to cover for Moss in his interrogation with Baylen—is Aaronow. He is not rewarded for his refusal to cheat—on the contrary, at the end it seems likely he will be fired. The capitalist system that traps the salesmen is so large and overwhelming that there is little they can do to damage it. They can only damage each other, while the system itself remains unaffected.
Roma is the only "successful" character in the play. How does his success lead the other salesmen to treat him? How does he, in turn, treat others? Is he likable to the other characters in the play, or to the audience?
Roma's status as top man on the board means that all of his coworkers envy him. He is in a delicate situation, as he must act gracious and unassuming about his success so the others do not turn against him, but simultaneously retain the appearance of strength and defend his territory. For the most part, Roma easily maintains this balance of modesty and strength. Because he has nothing to lose by being moderately kind, he reassures Levene and Aaronow, the bottom men on the board, with pleasant pep talks. When attacked by Moss, Roma responds in a manner that is both vicious and cool—the perfect tone to demonstrate that his authority is not challenged.
Roma's kindness toward Levene is revealed, at the end of the play, to be merely part of a scam to take half of Levene's commissions. Though Levene seems taken in by Roma's camaraderie, Moss sees through it. Moss, who is so unlikable himself, can clearly and clinically see how Roma uses his charm to his advantage. The audience's opinion of Roma depends on whether or not, like Levene, they see his genuine charisma, or, like Moss, they see his ugly and cutthroat opportunism.