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American Buffalo

By New York City
WIlliam H. Macy
WIlliam H. Macy
Sizzling, ferocious, superb. These were the first choice words given to David Mamet's American Buffalo, which won the 1977 Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American play. The Atlantic Theater Company's current revival, starring W.H. Macy, fresh from a sold-out run in London, falls short of the mark regarding the first two of those descriptives, yet overall hits the third. So who can complain?

Mamet's language, which has long been praised for its razor-sharp, foul-mouthed, cryptic-patterned dialogue, is still intact. But while the words--including Mamet's obligatory slew of four-letter epitaphs--might once have provided a great deal of shock to audiences, today they possess a perceptable loss of punch and severity, perhaps resulting from the freedom for such talk that exists in today's multimedia world. This production has to deliver the goods the old-fashioned way: through the acting and the story.

American Buffalo is a morality tale about three small-time crooks, Teach (Macy), Don (Philip Baker Hall), and his young friend Bobby (Mark Webber), on the eve of an attempted heist of precious coins, including a rare buffalo nickel, hence the play's title. Set entirely in a crowded secondhand store, the play opens with Don, who owns the store, teaching some life lessons to his young friend Bobby. How is he taking care of himself? Does he have any vitamins? Does he need any money? Instantly, Don is seen as a clear father figure to his inexperienced young protégé, a figure he most likely never was within his own family. The production's dynamic then takes a turn with Teach's stormy entrance. Upset after a losing night of poker, Teach enraptures and terrorizes the stage with a maniacal barrage of verbal and physical outbursts. His name is dutifully earned from the lessons he gives, whether anyone is listening or not.

Cast of American Buffalo
Cast of American Buffalo
The role of Teach has been explored by some of this generation's greatest actors. Robert Duvall tackled it in 1976, Al Pacino in 1981 and 1983 and Dustin Hoffman took on the role for the 1996 film version. The common factor in all three portrayals is Teach's frightening rage. Macy, who is one of today's most interesting and believable actors, doesn't have the natural menace it takes to invoke fear in the audience. His take on the ferocity of the character is that of a miniature Doberman pincher: He knows his bite isn't as powerful as the others', so he makes his bark as loud as possible. Some may view this toning-down of the character's fury as a fault of the performer; but when an actor is as impassioned and dedicated to his craft as Macy, such criticism seems unnecessary. In a scene early on, Macy simultaneously smokes a cigarette, eats burnt bacon, drinks black coffee and berates his friend for eating yogurt--that's vicious enough for me.

The other two actors in the production provide memorable performances of their own. The seasoned film and stage actor Hall imbues Don with a nobility that rises above the junk that fills his life and his store. The fact that Macy and Hall struggled for years before finding critical and popular acclaim adds depth to their world-weary repartee. Making his theatrical debut, Webber brings a refreshingly wide-eyed, almost pure innocence to Bobby. All three are to be commended for masterfully handling Mamet's difficult linguistic style, which can become painfully obvious when his works are attempted by amateurs.

Philip Baker Hall
Philip Baker Hall
The other major player in this American Buffalo is Kevin Rigdon's amazingly rich set. At first glance, the dozens (if not hundreds) of props strewn throughout the store seem to be just elaborate set dressing. On further viewing, each item seems to have its own story. From the old guitar case to the antique lamp to the pig-spreading device (yes, it's disgusting), these items--which are precariously placed on top of one another--help to create a sense of unease and tension that is sometimes lacking in the performances. Director Neil Pepe, who also serves as artistic director for the Atlantic, brings a smooth feel to the production, deftly using constant movement at some points and complete stillness at others to create heightened levels of humor and pathos.

The single most important theme of American Buffalo--the thing that keeps the play from fading into impotency--is its balls-up view of capitalism and business. Each character is out for his own profit, and nothing else: Don, for the financial gain of his store; Bobby, for his drug-addled survival; Teach, for the big score that will give him the legendary criminal status he craves. Ultimately, the action of the play is very much like a day in the stock market. You hear about the tip, you wait for your moment to jump, you attack--but, sometimes, you end up right back where you started.


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