The great classic plays are a sort of beach which invite us to play in their waves. Thus we see modern-dress Hamlets, and productions of As You Like It with the history of cinema as a backdrop. It is different for great modern plays like David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Audiences have their expectations about the modern classics, even as children have their expectations about the way their bedtime stories are to be read to them. It is a bold director who opens up a new interpretation on a modern classic, and a shrewd and subtle one who does so successfully.
So let us take our hats off and salute Joy Zinoman – for the final time as Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director – who gives this great play a production which is at once thoughtful and compassionate. Mamet wrote a hugely entertaining play, with plenty of suspense and jaw-dropping wit. Studio has mined this play for its insight, and you will leave it not only entertained but engaged and reflective as well.
Zinoman’s principal instrument in this endeavor is the gifted Peter Allas as Teach, the play’s catalyst. American Buffalo, as you know, is the story of three of life’s losers in the process of failing to rob a coin collector. It is set in the interior of Don’s Resale Shop – which is to say, junk shop squatting beneath a noisy L train somewhere in Chicago. The shop is stocked with battered manual typewriters, reconditioned ElectroLuxes, broken-down electric fans – and broken people. Don (Ed Gero), a shambling wreck of a man, and his hophead protégé Bobby (Jimmy Davis) – a man so supernally stupid that his ignorance is mistaken for deceptiveness – are themselves elements of a human junk shop, which also includes Fletcher and Ruth (who squabble over pig iron) and Grace.
And also the incandescent Teach – who blasts into the shop on a shock wave of fabulous, profane, paint-peeling invective, all directed at Ruth. I cannot repeat it here, for fear my keyboard would melt, or that I would accidentally invoke Satan, who would then appear on my computer screen. The cause of this verbal thermonuclear warfare? When at breakfast, Teach took a piece of Grace’s toast, Ruth sarcastically said, “help yourself.”
I have seen this scene done half-a-dozen times and every time the audience is immediately confronted with a Teach who is dangerous and unpredictable – the terrorist who might drop by to play poker with you. But this time we get something more: a Teach who is sad and vulnerable, desperate for human connection and clueless as to how to achieve it. In between bursts of world-class profanity, Teach reveals his sorrow and loneliness, and how unappreciated he feels, and it slowly dawns on us that this jittery maniac is one of the lost boys. Of course, Allas is delivering the lines Mamet wrote for the character, but in other productions, Teach’s pleas for sympathy and understanding come off as laugh lines, like the concept of Tony Soprano seeing a psychiatrist. Here we understand that Teach’s profanity and ridiculous threats are simply the vocabulary of his pain.
The effect on the two other characters (only Don and Bobby are on stage) is immense, and positive. Where Teach is an explosive force of intimidation, Don necessarily hunkers down and does everything cautiously, like an old bull elephant about to be charged by a younger, stronger male, and Bobby is frequently in danger of disappearing. Where, as here, Teach’s role is played with more subtlety and vulnerability, we see a deeper and more satisfying Bobby and Don as a result. Gero’s Don, knowing that Teach is more bark than bite, can control the action in his shop and Davis’ Bobby, without having to worry that Teach will go postal at any moment, can return to his dim-witted pursuit of small-dollar subsidies from Don.
As for the caper – breaking into a coin collector’s home and stealing his collection – we know at the outset that this collection of low-wattage, low-rent rejects will be shipwrecked before they set sail. They are dreadful as criminals – amateurs – buoyed by the shadowy notion that somehow things will work out. They have no idea how to break into the house, or how to get around any alarm system, or how to break into his safe (or even if he has a safe) or what to do with the coins once they get them. They are the Florence Foster-Jenkinses of crime, unaware of the need for talent, or planning, or study, or anything. The only question is whether they will be caught, or if something even worse will happen to them. Relieved of the burden of anticipating their possible success, we can sit back and enjoy the play for what it is: a remarkable interplay of characters.
Since American Buffalo is not a children’s story and we are not children, it’s good to have a production shake up some of our preconceptions about the play. This new and provocative take on the play is a fitting punctuation mark for the career of Joy Zinoman, herself a remarkable character who has gifted Washington audiences for thirty-five years with some great first looks at new plays, and some even greater second looks at the classics.
By David Mamet
Directed by Joy Zinoman
Produced by The Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
American Buffalo runs through June 13, 2010.
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
- Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
- David Hoffman . Washington Blade
- Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
- Julie LaPorte . Washington Life
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer
- Trey Graham . City Paper
- Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Alan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThings
- Peter Marks . Washington Post