David Mamet’s stage language has become familiar to theater and film-goers over the last quarter century. Spare, sometimes cryptic, Mamet’s dialogue dances around the subtleties of human experience, the edges of realities of which the characters themselves are often only vaguely aware and surely unable to directly articulate.American Buffalo, Mamet’s Broadway debut from 1977, holds up remarkably well. With just three onstage characters and one setting, it is also an obvious choice for budget-conscious small and regional theaters.
The setting is "Don’s Resale Shop," from the start a commentary on the meaning and use of words. It’s a junk shop, but "resale" is meant to lend it a certain cachet; it’s a marketer’s spin. Don has sold a Buffalo head nickel to a customer, having no idea himself what the coin was worth, but intuiting the customer’s interest and driving up the price. When he comes to suspect the coin may be even more valuable, he plans to burglarize the customer’s home to get it back.
Don enlists as his accomplice a none-too-bright reformed drug addict, Bob, toward whom Don feels paternal and protective. Neither appear to have any other family, and friendship in their world is a questionable and changing commodity, a matter of keeping score on "who treated you like what." The third character is Walter Cole, called "Teach." When he learns of the planned heist, he wants a piece of the action and talks Don into cutting Bob out, including him instead.
The night of the planned robbery, Bob shows up unexpectedly at the shop; he’s bought another Buffalo head nickel and wants to sell it to Don. Teach shows up late, angering Don, but neither has another accomplice, Fletcher, shown up. Teach tries to deal Fletcher out of the job, too, telling Don that Fletcher cheated him at poker. Tension mounts between Don and Teach, with Bob caught in between. Violence erupts and their plans effectively evaporate.
In other work, like the 1984 Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet has expressed a certain cynicism about business practices, the paucity of business ethics, and the way people’s egos become inextricably woven into their work roles. In American Buffalo, too, the line between business and chicanery comes into play, but a more fundamental view of the human condition lies beneath that subject matter. Mamet’s characters here are the most marginal of people, living at the edge of economic sustenance, without family ties, linked only to "friends" whose friendship seems ever-shifting and unreliable. Teach, the most fully developed of the three characters, is a swaggering braggart, a con-man seeking an advantage at any cost. He’s critical of others, gets peeved over the most minor of perceived slights, and obviously struggles constantly to sustain any sense of self-worth. When things fall apart, he says in a moment of unusual candor, "I go out there every day. There’s nothing out there."
Over and above that dark view is the bleak mood of uncertainty that hangs over Mamet scripts like permanent storm clouds. Words are misused by characters, words are misunderstood, communication is flawed. Information, meanings, relationships, plans–all are in a constant state of flux and change. There are no constants and life itself seems to be a house of cards.
The trap in staging a play like American Buffalo is to miss the subtleties, to rely on a straightforward delivery of dialogue as if that alone would draw out the meanings. In American Conservatory Theater’s new production, director Richard E.T. White delivers the entire length of the two acts of the play at a constant level of intensity so that climactic moments offer no more drama than expository material. Marco Barricelli captures Teach’s essence skillfully, but White fails to bring out in him the incipient threat of violence in the character that would foreshadow his behavior in the second act and thus infuse it with both credibility and emotional power. And when Teach says, in what should be a revelatory moment, "There’s nothing out there," the line is uninflected, thrown away, lost in the flood of dialogue, as if it were no different than all the bluster with which Teach has covered up before. In Mamet, as in Pinter, pauses and silences are often as key to conveying meaning as the lines that surround them; Mr. White, though, seems timorous at the prospect of a moment’s silence on stage.
Matt DeCaro, as Don, makes a good foil for Teach, measured where Teach is impulsive, though no less psychologically isolated. But his motivation is not made as clear as it might be. Still, his fatherly affection for Bob (Damon Seawell) is both touching and sad in its quiet desperation.Kent Dorsey’s set is appropriately realistic.
Even in an uninvolving production such as this one, moments of Mamet’s brilliance manage to make themselves felt. But ACT’s American Buffalo is a disappointment–a plug nickel.