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American Buffalo

A trio of stupendous performances ignite an early Mamet classic.

Ron Eldard, Freddy Rodriguez, and Bill Smitrovich in American Buffalo
(© Michael Lamont)
Ron Eldard is a dangerous bull in a junk shop. His performance in American Buffalo, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse, is explosive even in his quiet moments so that when he finally blows, it is terrifying. As the set collapses around the actors, it's never clear if something will crash on their heads and injure them in real life. In those moments, Director Randall Arney strips away safety; this is appropriate because no one should get a life preserver in David Mamet's most successful works.

At a disheveled pawn shop, Teach (Eldard), Don (Bill Smitrovich), and Bob (Freddy Rodriguez) plan a heist of a rare buffalo nickel. Because the three are not very bright or trustworthy, they quickly turn on one another and muddle everything up.

Mamet's style has always been volatile and polarizing. His dialogue cadence is as fresh and stylized as when he started writing in the '70s. His characters are often angry, spewing four-letter words the way others use prepositions. Conversations have an ordinariness that seems lifted from real people, making him the grandfather of the Quentin Tarantino screenplay. American Buffalo never goes in the direction audiences would think. He sets up cliché circumstances (a caper, a loaded gun, a drug addict) and then unpredictably takes the audience on a diverse but satisfying path.

Arney's direction keeps the staging combustible. The actors circle one another like unstable atoms. The only moment that feels false is an act of violence that doesn't at all seem realistic due to the weapon's placement. What does feel genuine is the detailed set by Tekeshi Kata. Cluttered with rusty and generic knickknacks, the room is a grimy experience.

Eldard is feral as the dim but hostile Teach. This is a role that was played by Robert Duvall and Al Pacino on Broadway, as well as Dustin Hoffman on film. Eldard holds his own in this complicated but compelling role. Rodriguez has a cloudy voice to illustrate his zoned-out character who may or may not still be on the juice. Hands shaking, closing his eyes constantly as if his eyeballs are on fire, Rodriguez is fascinating to watch. Smitrovich has the less showy but difficult role of an entitled buffoon who targets a customer just for getting a good deal on his merchandise. Yet he has a big enough heart to protect Bob, the skittish druggie who hangs at his store. Smitrovich is both a believable father figure and scoundrel.

For Mamet fans, the winning combination of Ron Eldard, Freddy Rodriguez, and Bill Smitrovich makes American Buffalo a worthy night at the theater.