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American Buffalo

Chris Noth is the big reason to see BTF's revival of David Mamet's play about petty criminals.

Chris Noth in American Buffalo
(Photo © Kevin Sprague)
The payoff of the Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of David Mamet's 1977 breakout work American Buffalo is the revelation that Chris Noth can play a gone-to-seed grifter just as convincingly as he can play a driven cop (his role on Law & Order, to which he will return this season) or a suave heartthrob (Mr. Big on Sex and the City). Long before he achieved the status of a TV icon, Noth trained as a stage actor at Yale, and his comfort on the boards is palpable.

As Teach, the loose cannon in a trio of petty criminals, Noth physicalizes every aspect of his role. He careens between a studly prowl and slumped attitudes of defeat, not to mention the destructive outbursts that lie in wait from word one (an expletive directed at a girlfriend). You feel you know this guy who's snaking around in his brown-on-brown polyester duds and affecting an air of all-knowingness -- which is, no doubt, how he got his nickname. Teach is just a slick line or two away from abject loserdom, and he'll fight to the death to defend that edge.

Don Dubrow, the proprietor of the rat-trap junk store where Teach likes to hang out, is a civilizing force by comparison; the role is played here by Jim Frangione, a veteran of Mamet's Atlantic Theater Company in New York. Don is almost maternal in his solicitude toward his young trainee/assistant Bob (Sean Nelson, who played the same role in the 1996 movie version starring Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz). They're a family of sorts, however dysfunctional, these marginal characters struggling for ascendancy in a scrap-heap world.

Physically, everything about this production is just right: Carl Sprague's scuzzy jumble of a set; Scott Killian's mood-setting, cool-guy jazz; and especially Olivera Gajic's earth-toned, 1970s garb, which never veers into caricature. And you couldn't ask for a better pairing than Noth and Frangione. The former brings the necessary frisson of borderline-psycho menace while the latter displays brilliantly subtle timing in what is essentially a straight man role. Together, they lend the script more humor than one would have thought possible. Unfortunately, on the minus side, Nelson seems a bit too choirboy-wholesome to pass as a recovering junkie.

If American Buffalo doesn't entirely captivate -- and the second act definitely lags -- it's not just because these foolish bumblers can't seem to carry off the caper that they've spent the whole play planning. Indeed, that outcome was pretty much predetermined. The shortfall is in dramatic structure. If you strip away the shock value of the language, as the intervening decades have done, what you're left with is a writer's exercise. Mamet, perhaps in thrall to Pinter, is too obviously flexing his authorial muscles; in his eagerness to capture how people really talk, he fails to shape a compelling narrative. The play is all atmosphere, including the vituperative verbiage.

Yet what's most striking about American Buffalo isn't the profanity. Rather, it's the way that these amoral schemers pontificate on the benefits of eating breakfast, for example, or on the optimal protocol for breaking and entering. In such speeches, Mamet captures the grandiose exercise in self-delusion that is honor among thieves -- or, to take a broader view, human life as we know it.

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