American Buffalo, by David Mamet. Directed by John Gould Rubin. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Treat Williams, Oliver Palmer, Stephen Adly Guingis; photo: Gerry Goldstein
"What a load of crap, eh?"
David Mamet's play, "American Buffalo" was among the first plays I ever actively disliked. That was back in the mid-1970s. It seemed to me then, and it still feels the same to me now, like a washed out version of Becket's "Waiting for Godot." In both plays three men put their faith in the correctness of a fourth man making things work out for the best. In both plays the man never shows up. I don't know if others have found the comparison, but for me both plays exhibit some of the same human traits: helplessness, ego-bending, violence, domination, anti-social behavior and hope. The big difference here is that Mamet's unseen Godot, a man known as Fletch, is located and may be reachable, although that achievement is still in the wings, technically, when the play ends.
Where Samuel Beckett endows his characters with exquisite and nearly poetic language, Mamet goes for the commonplace, low-life drivel that includes several uses of, to be polite about it, the "C" word (and I don't mean "crap"), the "F" word and other expletives like "dyke" and some I can't print at all. Mamet's denizens of Chicago have kept me out of that city for decades. As strong and as frequently revived on the New York Stage as it is, it is interesting to note that it has rarely ever had a long enough run to be counted a hit. What it did do was to create a strong interest in the playwright and his possibilities.
In the current production at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont, the show features three strong actors. Stephen Adly Guirgis plays Donny, the owner of a junkshop in Chicago whose greed sets in motion a crime to be committed, stealing back an item he has sold to a recent customer. Oliver Palmer plays Bobby, a much younger man who idolizes Donny and some of the other men who frequent the shop, its on-going poker game and its small if frequent crimes. Walter Cole, always called "Teach" or "Teacher" is played by Treat Williams. All three actors are convincing in their roles which is a good thing and all three actors are convincing in their roles which is a bad thing. Williams and Guirgis play understandable types whose vulgarities are only exceeded by their nastiness. Palmer's wishy-washy small-time-criminal intern is the provider of comic relief until the final scenes of the play when all hell breaks loose around him and invades his slightly more pristine space.
John Gould Rubin, the director of this edition of the play, keeps things tight and contained on a minimalist set designed by Chris Barreca consiting of a messy card table and two chairs lit by an overhead lamp in Stephen Strawbridge's minimalist lighting which often left the actors in half-light or no light at all when they delivered difficult lines. Michael Toomey created fight choreography that was chilling to watch and Ryan Rumery's sound design gave out with chilling semi-musical outpourings at appropriate moments. What Rubin achieves with all of this is a remote, almost distant, place in which three men converge at different times in a single day and night to taunt and manipulate one another. For the audience on stage, close to the action, the feeling might be very different, but from my row "I" seat I never felt connected to the men or their drama at all.
Treat Williams' role contains the highest degree of volatility, Teach's anger and his need to humilate others always hanging, like fish from a hook on his hat, in front of him. Teach maintains an anger management problem from his first tirade laden entrance to his final remorseless exit wearing a silly hat geared to start a fight on the street outside. Keeping up with his own fury in the part, Williams not only went up on his lines opening night, but his smashing of props near the play's end resulted in a front-row theatergoer suffering a facial injury, a true testament to the actor's conviction in the role.
Guirgis walks a tight-rope of anxiety as Donny. His motives are initially clear but the land him in a fog of alternative realities as the play progresses. Guirgis handles the back and forth of attitudes very nicely and keeps his Donny a complex and confused human being who cannot be nice when he's being nice. This actor is also a playwright who has been named playwright-in-residence at New York City's Signature Theatre and he seems to be writing, and rewriting his role in this Mamet play as he goes. The dichotomy of career thrusts allowed him to try on different personalities throughout the play.
Oliver Palmer's confused and confusing Bobby serves as a catalyst for both of his co-players' characters. This is just as Mamet would have him played, I am certain, for he is the half-an-innocent whose existence depends on the continued interest paid him by Donny and Teach.
It is the odd quality of relationships that makes this play viable. All three men have grasped that and played to the limits their characters will allow. Does this make them any more touching or reliable than in any other production I've seen - not at all. The result here, for me, is exactly what it has been before: a play I don't like performed by men of talent who could be doing something wonderful instead of merely wondering. The show closes Dorset's fine season and it is certainly something worth seeing if you can handle the language and the violence and the glorified representation of criminal behavior. Several people left the sold-out house at intermission on opening night and if that continues you could supposedly "second-act" the show and the second act is better than first anyway.
American Buffalo plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT through September 2. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223, ext. 2 or go on line at dorsettheatrefestival.org.