David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” premiered 25 years ago, assuring the playwright’s reputation as an American master, a man who had written an enduring theater classic.
Today, it still seems fresh in its language and feeling, in its inarticulate expression of the importance of the American business ethos in the nation’s life, even its dankest, smallest, lowest places. At the Studio Theatre, where outgoing Artistic Director Joy Zinoman shows again that she get the essentials of familiar material, in which the three petty thieves and low-lifes get to cry out and trumpet their own “attention must be paid,” their own plea for importance.
You’d think that in a contemporary play where a cellphone doesn’t ring, there would be a whiff of the anachronistic, that rust might have settled on the play. But in the 1970s world of Don, Teach and Bobby, ineffectual small-time crooks, thieves and hustlers, the time is now, and it’s not going to get any better.
By now, Mamet’s way of writing dialogue — repetitious, stinky with street debris, loss, and the fallout of small dreams ill considered, has acquired a cachet all of its own, it’s often imitated — like Hemingway’s sparse style and his tough private eye imitators Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald. In fact, it’s often parodied. It sounds hard-nosed and earthy, virtually real, except that its rhythms aren’t real at all, and they have a kind of jazzy musicality to them.
Repetition is a way at arriving at the point of a conversation for this trio. Don is a small lookout for the next opportunity, not the main chance. He runs “Don’s Resale” shop, a place that’s half storage house for stolen goods, a quarter junkyard, and a quarter pawn shop, with a bit of accidental antique shop thrown in. The three — Don, slow, empathetic, patient; Teach, a jacked-up, nervous man with nothing in his life except for his time in the shop; and Bobby, the hyper junkie who acts as if he’s burning up all the time — are thieves of one sort or another. They operate on the fringes, and mostly outside the law.
But to them, boosting a truck, breaking into a house and working with other crooks is all part of the great American enterprise of going for the dollar, of a business where everyone’s entitled to a share of the proceeds. This one time, they’ve convinced themselves that a man who bought an American buffalo nickel from Don is loaded with rare coins which they plan to steal from his house.
Easier said than planned, let alone done. Theses are guys frozen with inaction, jealousies, insecurities, drenched in bad habits attained in poker games and too much time spent together. Their talk doesn’t get results, and they improvise bad notes like a drunk sax player.
Ed Gero, who plays the frustrated, often flummoxed Don, is the glue of this production. He’s the shaky sun around which the other two roll as they vie for his attention, for his approval, for the go-ahead. Gero has a soft solidity here, an exasperation that comes from owning junk, but also from love. Peter Allas as the gun-toting Teach looks like one of those guys who’s always stirring the pot where trust lies buried. And Jimmy Davis is disturbing as the needy, skinny, pushy junkie Bobby.
Russell Metheny’s shabby, rich set of a shop is a wonder. It looks lived in, like an ornamented prison.
Zinoman lets the actors have their way with the words, where the heart and shabby souls lie. “American Buffalo” is often funny, but it’s always tense, dangerous and touching, sometimes all at once. Try to imagine the “Seinfeld” cast of folks as low-lifes, and you get the idea. “Don’t forget, we gotta do the thing?” “The thing? What thing?” “You know, the thing, we gotta do it.” “Oh yeah, the thing. We gotta do the thing.”
Which isn’t exact. But you get the drift. It’s like smoke and music from the past coming into the here and now.
(“American Buffalo” runs through June 13.)