Any production which changes a third of its cast undertakes an adventure, and every adventure deserves examination. Studio’s American Buffalo, now extended through July 11, has replaced the actor playing Donny, the excellent Ed Gero, with Thomas G. Waites, also excellent but in a completely different way. Change ensues.
You know the plot to American Buffalo, (or, if not, I detail it in this previous review) but it is in essence a story of three sad sacks failing to rob a coin collector. They have no idea how to get into his house, or how to get into his safe (assuming he has one), or how to sell the product once they pinch it. To be technical about it, they don’t even know that their mark has a coin collection; they just know he bought a nickel from one of them for ninety bucks, and they assume the rest. They know only how to howl at each other, and they do, for an hour and a half, more or less.
In a play which is based on the relationships between its characters, the substitution of an actor has consequences. Donny, who owns the junk shop in which the play is set, is the man who first conceives of robbing the purported coin collector, and thus the play’s fulcrum – it is he that the other characters, Donny’s protégé Bobby (Jimmy Davis) and the manic Teach (Peter Allas) must convince in order for them to achieve their objectives.
In Gero’s hands, Donny had a certain gravity which approached wisdom. He is a stupid man – they are all stupid men – but he has been around for a while, and has learned something for his pains. He had a warmth to him, and an evident affection for Bobby, which Teach obliquely suggests has sexual origins. Donny’s warmth extended even to Teach, who Donny treated with a tolerance which was alternately bemused and resigned.
Waites plays him somewhat differently. His Donny is colder, more agitated, edgier. He touches Bobby less often than Gero’s Donny did, and though he recognizes that Teach is a lunatic he seems more receptive to Teach’s paranoid thinking. Waites, who twenty-eight years ago played Bobby to Al Pacino’s Teach, gives Donny a physicality that Gero did not. He is constantly on his feet, jiggling, moving around, like a middleweight getting ready for an important fight. When he grabs Teach by the coat toward the end of the play, you are suddenly afraid for Teach. While Teach is constantly angry, you sense with Waites’ Donny an answering anger just below the surface of his cold exterior, waiting for an excuse to break out, just as lava looks for a break in the crust of the earth.
There are other pleasures to this more mature production. Mamet’s plays are known for his use of profanity, but what really makes American Buffalo work is tautology. When Bobby tells Donny that he saw the mark leaving his house, Donny asks what the mark was wearing. “Stuff,” is Bobby’s helpful reply. Later, Donny, talking on the phone to a potential buyer of the potentially stolen collection, asks “if I could get ahold of some of that stuff you were interested in, would you be interested in some of it?” (The answer is no.) When Teach comes into the shop later in the evening he’s startled to see Bobby. “What is he doing here?” he asks Don. “I came in,” Bobby explains. Later, the excitable Teach, furious that someone hasn’t shown up on time, suggests that he should be “horsewhipped with a horsewhip.” There are a dozen or more other examples, sprinkled through the play in surprising places, and when they are delivered correctly they are hilarious.
They were hilarious on the night I saw the production, and the principal reason is the growth and maturation of Jimmy Davis’ Bobby. Davis was good on opening night, but he is much better now, fully in control of his character’s comic implications. Bobby is a simpleton, and his character does not leave much room for interpretation, but the way Davis now plays him, we can see the wheels slowly turning inside his mind, and the ripe lines seem to plop out of his mouth the nanosecond they can have maximum effect. It is excellent work, consistent with the high quality established by Waites and Allas.
The technical quality compliments the work of the actors. You can practically smell the must in Russell Metheny’s set, and he convincingly produces the rainstorm necessary to justify Teach’s ridiculous hat at the play’s end. Light Designer Michael Giannitti and Sound Designer Gil Thompson conspire to evocatively produce the effects of being under one of Chicago’s fantastic L trains. Waites’ Donny and Allas’ Teach sound as if they come from the same southside neighborhood in Chicago; Dialect Coach Elizabeth van den Berg deserves the credit. Costume Designer Helen Q. Huang should be congratulated for Teach’s fabulous shirt, which seems to be embroidered with a cage made of bones. And this performance more effectively highlighted Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter’s strong work than the earlier performance I saw.
Look, seeing this matured production of Studio’s American Buffalo will not be like going to a different play. It will be like going to a great play, though, beautifully done.
By David Mamet
Directed by Joy Zinoman
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
American Buffalo is scheduled to close July 11, 2010.
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