Some Really Good Mamet

January 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm 1 comment

Apologies that it took so long for this to come out.  I’ve been snowed in at home in Toledo without internet access.  Well, sort of.  But better late than never:

American Buffalo

Steppenwolf Theatre

***.5 (out of 5)

With most theatres throwing up traditional or parodies of traditional holiday shows, Steppenwolf has instead decided to fill December with their production of American Buffalo, David Mamet’s fiery three-character play set in the bowels of a Chicago junk shop.  Revolving around the petty lives of small-time crooks, the 1975 play doesn’t have much to do with the season of giving.  In this time of extreme consumerism, Amy Morton’s rapid-paced production reminds us about the economic struggles going on and forces us to look at the real value of material things.

American Buffalo is one of several plays by Mamet based in Chicago.  Located in a resale shop crammed with junk of different eras, it also one of his seediest plays.  This sleazy mood pervades Kevin Depinet’s meticulously-dressed set, where shelf after shelf of random crap towers to the ceiling.  Morton and guy decided, in a genius move, to put the shop in a basement of a rickety old building.  Upon entering the theatre, you immediately feel like you’ve crawled into some underground lair, where your next-door neighbors are the subway and the sewage system.  And in this cavern of the city, we watch three men battle and disintegrate over business, friendship, and a few hundred bucks.

The plot spins around planning a heist to get an expensive buffalo nickel.  Symbolism alert—the coin, which features an Indian head on one side and the near-extinct American buffalo on the other, hits us with themes concerning American capitalism.  The tale begins with Donny (Francis Guinan), who owns the subterranean shop where a man came in and paid $90 for a nickel he plucked from a bowl of random coins.  Donny feels cheated, even though he ratcheted the price up from the man’s original offer of $15 and has no idea what the coin is actually worth.   Thinking he’s entitled to the coin, he plans to rob the buyer with his assistant, former-junkie Bobby (Patrick Andrews).  Don’s friend Teach (the slimeball Tracy Letts), is also able to talk his way into the robbery.  The three multi-generational characters form a sort of dysfunctional family, with Don as the matured grandfather, Teach as the business-savvy father, and Bobby as the impressionable young son.  Or possibly Don is the father to both Teach and Bobby?  Either way, lies are told, truths are withheld, and knick-knacks are smashed.  The prospective thieves are forced to choose between greed and loyalty.  All of this for a coin that they never look up in the price book and probably isn’t worth much more than Don sold it for.

Letts, the Pulitzer-prize winner of the bunch, is fantastic as Teach.  He shoots out Mamet’s language like an AK-47, blasting rounds of profanities, poisonous persuasions, and prejudicial tirades.  However, he can also find the terrified-child side of the character.  It is the mark of a great actor when he can find a tear-jerking moment in a Mamet play.  Guinan is reserved as Donny, but still creates a vibrant character.  He could be more commanding, though; sometimes it feels like he is bending too far to Teach’s will.  Andrews’s Bobby is very strung out.  Sometimes the young actor is a bit over-zombified, and moments are missed.  As an ensemble, Morton’s cast squabble like hungry rats, which is pitch-perfect for Mamet’s squalid world.

Mamet is famous for his cynicism and machinegun-paced dialogue.  Steppenwolf’s American Buffalo finds all of this, but also tears open the emotional heart buried under the hatred and nihilism.  In our materialistic culture, it’s both enlightening and jarring to be reminded of the importance of human relationships.  This production serves it up like a pack of dynamite.

More information here.

–Barry Eitel


Entry filed under: Reviews. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

LOFTY DEEDS A Redneck Good Time Casting Disabled Actors

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Eileen  |  January 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Anybody else disagree?



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