CenterStage’s American Buffalo hits its high point when Teach (Jordan Lage), a bald guy with a mustache who sports a leisure jacket and bellbottom highwaters, pulls out a shiny silver gun and starts to load it. He’s sort of trying to hide it from Don, the other guy in the store. In other words, he’s trying to hide it, but hide it in a way that makes Don notice that he’s hiding it. And then Don (William Hill) asks what’s going on.
You don’t pull a gun out on stage without firing it. So we wait. And wait. But the gun goes back into Teach’s pocket and the characters return to wondering what they would do if they had the balls to do it.
Ultimately, though, the world – in the form of Don’s stifling Chicago junk shop — wins. Dangling from the ceiling and exploding off of shelves are obsolete gadgets and lawn chairs that seem to be waiting for someone, anyone, to grab them off their hooks, smash them to bits, and throw them into the nearest dumpster.
The angle of Neil Patel’s set places us behind the register, and the glass display case that’s holding everything from old nickels to a box of diaphrams. Don, Teach, and Bob (Rusty Ross) spend most of the production wending their way through the self-created mess and chaos. Is there anything at the end of the road for them? I’m not going to give that away. But here’s a clue: all they’re running on is the cheap fuel of suspicion, anger, and the sense that someone owes them something.
Fueled by low-grade mistrust, the plot engine slowly starts to move. A mysterious stranger has come into this junk store and bought a Buffalo nickel. Don, the overweight, middle aged owner, figures he could have squeezed him for more. And although he doesn’t know how much the nickel is worth – he does know that the other guy has more in his nearby apartment . So he decides to risk everything by breaking in and finding the coin collection.
He plans on using his assistant Bob (Rusty Ross), a greasy haired kid gone bad. Don and Bob start figuring out how to screw the guy who (they’re sure) screwed him. Ross is an appealing foil here, self-effacing and almost nonexistent. Their relationship is a bit understated in this production – which leaves the ending a little weak.
Then enter Teach - when he blasts in, a 70’s version of Seinfeld’s Kramer: lonely, weird, and aggreaved – the production kicks into gear. In a hyperkinetic performance, Lage moves around the stage, shadowboxing, dancing, and pleading, cursing Ruthie for implying that he is a moocher. Chewing that little morsel for a while, he starts to nurture that seed of bitterness into a large invasive weed. He digs himself into logical cul de sac, snoops around, and then tries to get in on what Don and Bob are doing. Don is slowly drawn in, as Teach starts to weave himself into Don’s scam.
The ultimate question: has the play worn out its welcome after 34 years? A few things seemed to age. First, the injection of pathos at the end is a little strained. Don, Teach, and Bob begin as losers, and wind up losers. Mamet’s profanity doesn’t have the jolt it used to. Maybe that’s a testimony to his outsized influence on screenwriting and even cable tv. Neither is the famously violent ending: somehow I got the impression that, with variations, this is what goes on at Don’s junk store every few weeks.
But however planted in the 70’s this production is, the subject matter is topical. Three characters risk everything and court disaster on a coin whose innate value is highly uncertain. It’s hard not to make the connection between north side Chicago and Wall Street.
But thanks to a production which for the most part, stays out of the swamp that tough-guy vernacular can sometimes become for actors, this play truly moves. Mamet is of course best known as a wordsmith. But under the directorship of Liesl Tommy, and thanks to an energizing performance by Lage, this gets transformed into an intensely physical play. Tough guys don’t dance, but Teach is a master of shadow boxing, driven by the desire for something real to happen, when, ultimately, the day is going to end like every other day. The gun never goes off. It doesn’t need to.
American Buffalo runs thru Dec 11, 2011 at CenterStage, 700 North Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD.
by David Mamet
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Produced by CenterStage
Reviewed by John Barry
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission