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.