Brian Mani and Brendan Meyer in American Players Theatre's American Buffalo
When David Mamet's American Buffalo burst onto the theater scene in 1977, it was hailed as a triumph of the vernacular and pronounced an instant classic. Mamet infused Buffalo's dialogue with caustic profanity and the stark rhythms of a struggling, disillusioned class one that had rarely been represented with such searing clarity. When the lights come up on the production by American Players Theatre (through Nov. 8 in the Touchstone Theatre), the play's first moments are filled with that same jagged feel.
A loud, brash saxophone blares a jazzy soundtrack of the 1970s (created by the talented composer and sound designer Joe Cerqua) that's overlaid with urban street sounds of police sirens and traffic. The single setting for the play, Don’s Resale Shop, is illuminated. A stagnant storefront filled with other people's castoffs -- from outdated clocks and appliances and jars of buttons, LPs and decks of cards to matchbooks, to worn toys and a vintage Chicago Cubs pennant -- this is the business and de facto home for three misfits, the store's owner Donny (Brian Mani), his high-strung poker buddy Teach (Jim Ridge) and his young protégé Bobby (Brendan Meyer), a sweet but slightly dimwitted junkie.
As the play opens, Donny is imparting wisdom to Bobby, instructing him on everything from the importance of a good breakfast to the necessity of seizing any opportunity to get ahead. He is also plotting to steal a historic buffalo nickel from a customer who recently purchased it from the shop, at a price Donny now realizes was tragically low. Still bitter from a loss at the gang's poker game the previous night, a twitchy and slightly paranoid Teach hears about the robbery plan and insists on becoming part of it so he can share in the proceeds.
As the play unfolds, the men's plans unravel. Defeated from the start, they fail to get ahead, to get back what was theirs, or to get what they believe their struggles have entitled them to. Part demise of the American dream, part absurdist tragedy and part indictment of American capitalism, the story casts broken people in a broken system.
Director Kenneth Albers has assembled an extraordinary cast. As Donny, Mani is a powerful, stabilizing force in the maelstrom that surrounds him. Clad in polyester pants and a shirt that's a bit too tight, he is constantly assessing his situation, calculating his next move, and trying to find the value in things others have thrown away, from an old coin to the people he's surrounded by. He provides a perfect balance to Ridge's Teach, a self-aggrandizing and nervous petty criminal whose accumulated (sometimes imagined) affronts fuel his rage.
Sporting a vintage, wide-collared shirt, a taffy-brown leather jacket and smoky glasses, Ridge paces the cluttered set like an animal patrolling its territory. Shrugging, grandstanding and gesturing wildly, he's out to get what's his. He mangles sentences with fiery conviction, revealing the character's slim understanding of the world (or at least the English language), which is dangerously coupled with quite a bit of certainty.
As Bobby, Meyer is heartbreaking. Utterly blank in his expressions, he doesn't understand the world he's entered. Trying desperately to earn the love and respect of his mentors, he is a hapless innocent who is either too slow or too naïve to keep up.
With all of these elements in place, it is odd that the first act of this notoriously coarse drama plays like a quaint period piece. The distinct costumes and hairstyles lend comedy rather than authenticity. Likewise, Teach's bluster in the play's first half is ridiculous and amusing instead of menacing. And while the use of profanity was perhaps groundbreaking when the production premiered 40 years ago, it hardly registers with an audience who subscribes to HBO. To compound matters, the pacing was inconsistent. Mamet dialogue is traditionally described as fast paced and erratic, littered with unfinished sentences and overlapping thoughts. That urgency was not present on opening night.
There is a pronounced, somewhat jarring shift in tone in the second act. While the story is suddenly more serious, it meanders and stalls. What began as an arresting premise gets bogged down. But the final moments of the play deliver a potent emotional punch; it's both surprising and reassuring to find traits that you share with these social outcasts, including love and loyalty. Like discovering a valuable relic buried in a box at a flea market, this prize is well worth the effort to find it.