Matt Witten has a thing for bad guys.
The mild-mannered Buffalo actor is fresh off a nightmare-inducing performance in the title role of Shakespeare in Delaware Park's production of "Macbeth."
And now he's taking on one of the most soulless characters in contemporary drama: Ricky Roma, a ruthless real estate salesman with dark heart and a moral compass stuck on evil.
The play is Road Less Traveled Theatre's production of David Mamet's 1984 hit "Glengarry Glen Ross," about a group of desperate real estate salesmen, and Witten is having the time of his life.
Roma, Witten said, "is out for the best possible lifestyle for himself and there is no concern or heed paid to the cost. And he's pretty ruthless, which is a great time as an actor."
Playing a character like Roma, for whom Mamet wrote a series of grand, almost Shakespearean soliloquies, gives Witten a chance to step outside of his own skin.
"I'm playing not only a different person, but a person completely unlike myself," he said. "It's a little bit more freeing. I find that you can take more chances and make more choices when you're playing a character that really has nothing to lose."
That was true by the end of "Macbeth," when Witten held up his blood-soaked hands and a dual expression understanding and terror flashed across his face. But it's true at the outset of "Glengarry," because Roma is well aware of how empty his supply of compassion is running and is in full control of his manipulative talents.
That gives Witten free reign to fully inhabit Roma's particularly toxic brand of masculinity and penchant for slicing opponents with four-letter words that cut to the core.
The emotion is the easy part, Witten and director Scott Behrend acknowledged. But memorizing Mamet's lines, and making them land as intended, is a different story.
"It's very difficult to translate if you're just looking at it on the page. It's almost as though one has to speak it aloud in order to get the gist," Witten said. "It's this back-and-forth dialogue that is almost simultaneous."
To get it right, Witten has been running lines with his wife, Christine, and using a smartphone app called Rehearsal Pro to get the difficult timing and word fragments of Mamet's rat-a-tat dialogue exactly right.
For Behrend, who first directed the show as a Syracuse University student 20 years ago, the biggest challenge is in making sure Mamet's words fly off the stage in the way the playwright intended them to.
"I think getting his dialogue correct is definitely one of the biggest challenges -- 'ifs,' 'buts' 'Is' -- where all those pauses land. It easily could go off the rails if you're not getting it right."
Behrend said the play has been "marinating" in his brain ever since he directed a student production of it. He's had lengthy conversations with Dan Foley, who directed the popular 1992 film version and with Dan Sullivan, who directed the 2012 Broadway revival, about the show.
And he thinks now is the perfect time to bring the play back to Buffalo audiences. (It was last here in an all-female production at the ALT Theatre in 2011.)
"These guys are basically on the edge of fraudulence all the time, which I think in our current time is also super-powerful," Behrend said. "We're all wondering where the truth is going to come from. And nobody wants to be sold a parcel of slop-land in Florida."
"Glengarry Glen Ross"
Opens Oct. 27 and runs through Nov. 19 in the Road Less Traveled Theatre, 500 Pearl St. Tickets are $5 to $35. Call 628-3069 or visit roadlesstraveledproductions.org.