American Buffalo

Director Mark Brokaw returns to the Dublin stage with the latest in a series of high profile productions of American dramas. He has switched registers from the stately intellectual rhythms of Arthur Miller (The Price, A View From the Bridge) to the hypermasculine, near hysterical mindscape of David Mamet. Deploying ellipsis, non-sequitors, and staccato delivery peppered with profanities and repetition, Mamet’s voice is a post-Pinter deployment of the atavistic forces behind twentieth century masculinity, one that is arguably even more skeptical than Pinter about its prospects.

The Northside of Chicago, 1975 – junk and antique dealer Don is on to something. He’s got a deal brewing, born out of malice, in which he intends to rob a collector who has bought a rare American buffalo-head coin from him at a knockdown price because Don didn’t know its true value. Don has enlisted the help of Bob, a reforming junky Don has taken under his wing, and in spite of Bob’s continuing small failures, Don is standing by him. Enter Teach, a jittery, would-be ‘operator’, who convinces Don that he ought to cut Bob out of the deal and work with a true professional, namely himself. Don’s decision throws his moral convictions into relief: not his ethics, which are clearly questionable, but the deeper commitment he has shown to his fellow man through his support to date for young Bob. The consequences of his decision will, before the night is out, result in purgative violence.

American Buffalo is an intense piece of drama, a three hander in which a sense of enclosure is vital. Part of the irony of the play is that in spite of all their planning and bluster, the characters hardly ever leave the confines of the store (or the world view it represents). The real action takes place on the moral plane, surrounding the quandary presented to the elderly Don by his decision to encourage young Bob to lead a cleaner life (relatively speaking, of course). As Mamet observed “once you take a step back from the moral responsibility you’ve undertaken, you’re lost,” a statement made about the original play and seen in the context of the moral failure of Nixon administration, which formed the backdrop the writing.

In spite of the showiness of the role of Teach, it is Don who is the soul of the play, and the anchor upon which its convincing realisation depends. Seán McGinley is a curious choice for the role. One envisions an older, heavier man, literally and figuratively weighted down and yet spry enough to be both sharp enough to run a quasi-legal business and dull enough to miss the mark from time to time. Brokaw used veteran American actor Robert Prosky in The Price and somehow I found it difficult to get him out of my head while watching McGinley at work here. Physical appearance should have nothing to do with effective acting, but there is a certain insubstantiality to McGinley as a stage presence in this role which undermines his hard work in vocal characterisation, deportment, and movement. There is nothing to fault in his performance, which strives to register the weight of the part, but on some level it fails to anchor the play as it ought.

Aidan Gillen is full of nervous bluster as Teach, and delivers the necessary scenery chewing as this eternally restless, but ultimately hollow and childish character. He lacks menace in the role though, which shows when the verbal violence gives way to the physical variety: it’s a little difficult to feel the pain. That said Domhnall Gleeson gives a nice rendering of torment in the role of Bob. Not only does he register the physical pain as the victim of Teach’s violence, he creates a very nice impression of consistent internal stress, his whole body seeming to go into and come out of a visibly painful clench with every word he speaks.

All three performers are faced with a much greater problem than casting and characterisation in the form of the beautifully and painstakingly assembled set by Alexander Dodge. Creating much too broad a space for the confined action of this play, his frankly distracting assemblage of miscellaneous objects (TVs, radios, lampshades, coins, plates, albums, mirrors, hairbrushes, bicycle wheels, street signs, etc.) serve no function other than as backdrop. In The Price a very similar stage design by Joe Vanek represented the detritus of time, which was an active subject in the play. Here, though the junk does signify something about the mentality of the world, it’s not enough to justify the massive amount of visual space given over to it, and the attendant problems in moving the actors around the place just to keep things looking busy.

There is still solid evening’s theatre entertainment here by virtue of the script itself, good and precise delivery by the cast, who do work hard, and a blistering pace. Somehow though it’s hard not to feel that Brokaw does not have the measure of Mamet yet, certainly not the way he held us in his sway with Miller.

american buffalo - dublin