American Buffalo, first produced in 1975 in Chicago, then on Broadway in 1977, is noted as the play that established playwright David Mamet as the premiere poet of American speech—emphatic, riddled with profanity, full of vague nouns with referents that change according to context, with meaning guided always by inflection. Mamet’s influence has been so pervasive that it’s hard to say at times whether he simply found the means to convey the way we talk or in fact invented a mannerism we now recognize as our own. It does seem to be the case that the dialogue in his plays has ceased to be unsettling and become “normal.” Staged in Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery, the Elm Shakespeare production of America Buffalo, directed by Mark Zeisler, could be said to offer an immediate contradiction: Mamet’s trio of seedy shop flies in an art gallery? Could it be that Mamet’s style of visceral, streetwise theater has become a museum piece? Perhaps, as there’s no denying that the used goods shop that comprises Elizabeth Bolster’s spare but effective set is situated in a setting that is genteely artsy. It might’ve been interesting to have staged the play in some abandoned New Haven retail space, but, that said, the fictional shop the characters inhabit wouldn’t be out of place on Whalley Avenue, home of the gallery, and so the immediate locale lends a certain aura of authenticity to the production.
The play itself is dialogue driven, so there’s no problem staging it in a confined space, and the closer the audience is to the action, the better. We hover on the periphery of the card table, small desk and display case of the shop, watching interactions that could be taking place in our midst. With no great distance to overcome in the staging, this American Buffalo finds its virtues in being intimate and realistic, its scale measured to a confined space we share with its characters.
The cast is uniformly excellent. As Donny Dubrow, the proprietor of the store, Tracy Griswold looks perfect for the part—lean, experienced, accommodating. He appears as a small-time businessman, essentially trusting, but also on the lookout for weaknesses in others that may be to his benefit: the kind of man who could strike a hard bargain or choose to be generous, as he sees fit. His plan to pull off “a score” on an unsuspecting well-heeled guy who visited his shop earlier and paid $90 for an American buffalo nickel is the dramatic focus, and, though criminal in his intentions, Donny is the good heart of the play. Donny’s effort to remain simpatico with his confreres, even when they lie to him and bully him, is of the essence of Mamet’s vision of the odd sincerities found in the midst of the dog-eat-dog world of daily life, an essence that Griswold’s face is able to express as he listens to the others.
As Bob, an addict who Donny would like to help, by employing him as his errand boy, and who he tries to mentor in a small way, Ryan Barry owns the part. He’s got the requisite slow speech, seemingly of one not all there, but he also can convey the idea that Bob is sharper than we—and his friends—think he is. Bob is a man of few words, almost everything he says is pulled out of him by Donny, and Barry is terrific at making Bob’s minimal words carry the weight and ambiguity Mamet requires. He has a tendency to repeat what’s said to him, a buying-time device that also seems to question everything he’s told, and, often, even what he himself says. This is important because how the plot “resolves” has to do with when Bob is lying and why. Zeisler’s actors are able to express a lot about their characters when they are silent as much as when they speak.
As Teach, the friendly nemesis of the slow-talking duo, a garrulous ne’er-do-well with an inflated opinion of himself, James Andreassi is a live wire. He pitches his voice to achieve what seems always to be a reasonable tone, even when he’s spouting nonsense or berating others for situations he himself creates. He has the ability to apologize and accuse in the same breath. In Teach, Mamet creates an important American type: the mastermind of speculative supposition. Teach has an explanation for everything, a way of creating narratives that suit his turn of mind, usually based on suspicions, irritations, gripes and grudges. Constantly wiping back his longish hair, throwing his size around, restlessly grabbing chairs, checking himself in the mirror, looking musingly or anxiously out the storefront at the street, Andreassi’s Teach is a man of useless activity, all his energy in service to a fantasy in which he makes a big score or saves the day. The drama of the play is to watch how his reckless need for control and self-assertion brings everything to a standstill, and, as Donny says, spreads “poison.”
American Buffalo is about small-timers in hard times, grasping at straws. The bleakness of these characters’ lives comes out slowly, allowing us to sympathize with their criminal plot, if only to see something go right for them. A working assumption of the play is that when “bad guys” are our “heroes,” someone will have to be worse than bad. Rather than scaring us with ruthlessness, the method of Zeisler’s production is to make these guys, even Teach, likeable enough and typical enough—and funny enough—to keep us on their side, sort of, to make us relax and accept them, so that their moral lapses and failures of imagination are ours as well.
Local in feel, relentless in pacing, familiar in its hard truths, Elm Shakespeare’s American Buffalo delivers.
American Buffalo By David Mamet Directed by Mark Zeisler, with: Dave Stephen Baker (Sound & Original Music), Elizabeth Bolster (Costume & Set Design), Jamie Burnett (Lighting), Emily DiNardo (Stage Manager), Emmett Cassidy and Liz Cecere (Tech Crew)
The Elm Shakespeare Company May 10-13 and 17-20
The Kehler Liddell Gallery 873 Whalley Avenue, New Haven
For tickets and information: www.elmshakespeare.org / 203.393.1436 / firstname.lastname@example.org