Thursday, April 09, 2009

American Buffalo

David Mamet can be exhausting.

Character development in his plays comes from lengthy dialogue delivered rapid-fire, and everything must be crisp and clear for it all to work.

Thanks to director Janis Stevens and outstanding performances by Capital Stage co-founders Peter Mohrmann and Jonathan Rhys Williams, and newcomer Joseph Baldridge, the current production of Mamet's breakthrough 1977 tragicomedy, 'American Buffalo,' works beautifully.

The story revolves around three inept, small-time crooks planning that one big heist: the score that will make their lives better. The plan grows out of the purchase of an American buffalo nickel, and the fantasy these three guys build around the man who purchased it.

In reality, though, this is a study in ineptitude.

Donny Dubrow (Mohrmann) runs Don's Resale Shop, a 1970s Chicago junk shop. The set is beautifully designed and dressed by Williams and Karyn Carl.

As played by Mohrmann, Donny is the 'heart' of the piece. He has taken young Bobby (Baldridge), a recovering drug addict, under his wing, and is teaching him about loyalty and the ethics of the streets:

'Well, Bob, I'm sorry,' Don says, 'but this isn't good enough. If you want to do business ... if we got a business deal, it isn't good enough. I want you to remember this.'

'I do,' Bobby insists.

'Yeah,' Don answers, 'now ... but later, what?'

He pauses.

'Just one thing, Bob. Action counts.'

Another pause.

'Action talks, and b------t walks.'

Donny has decided that the guy who paid $90 for an old nickel must be a coin collector, and therefore must have a valuable coin collection, and that his home could be robbed when he isn't present.

Bobby is sent to watch where the guy goes: to get a feel for when he is and isn't home. The young boy is eager to please, but can't seem to do anything right. He obviously worships Donny, but seems a constant disappointment. Baldridge capably portrays a man not that long into recovery.

Williams gives a sizzling performance as Teach, the Art Carney to Mohrmann's Jackie Gleason. Teach is a bundle of nervous energy: He can't sit still for a moment, and is filled with ideas for how to pull off the perfect heist. Teach is a born loser, but he'll never perceive that all his ideas are doomed to failure.

Williams' costume literally makes the man (kudos to costumer designer Rebecca Redmond). He's a study in polyester and leather: a real street-guy aiming for flashy, but merely looking cheap.

We can't help liking Donny, Teach and Bobby, despite their obviously despicable characteristics, because all three are devoted to each other; we're therefore drawn into their offbeat friendship. The incident that brings the play to its conclusion demonstrates how each man is affected by this unspoken affection for the others.

While 'American Buffalo' deals with the planning of dark deeds, much humor exists in the interactions of the three characters. The humor derives from the shape and form of the language, almost as much as their actual dialogue. Without the snap, crackle and pop demonstrated by these three actors, this might be a quite different play.

During a question and answer session that followed our performance, Stevens pointed out the timeliness of 'American Buffalo.' This play deals with some very small-time crooks, but at a different time and in a better setting, their plans to rip off a customer could just as easily be a conversation taking place in the board room of AIG.

In fact, the play debuted shortly after the Watergate scandal broke, during which we learned how high-level officials conspired to hold back information from the American public. Same story, different setting.

'American Buffalo' is a Mamet classic, and this outstanding production is well worth seeing.

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