When American Buffalo premiered on Broadway in 1977, critics had to devise new terms to praise David Mamet’s craft. It wasn’t simply realistic, they said; it was “micro-real” or “hyper-real” or even “really real.” Mamet’s terse dialogue cuts to the bone, then to the marrow. His three characters don’t speak their minds so much as externalize their nerves — with frayed words and fragmented sentences.
The play’s “realistic,” but only on the surface. Buffalo becomes progressively surreal, almost hallucinatory. Don, Teach, and young Bob strategize. They bluff and pretend to be in the know. It’s soon clear that although their plotting gives them a sense of order — “this is planning,” Teach shouts, as if having an epiphany, “this is preparation” — they can’t get a handle on a scheme. And Buffalo transforms into a groggy, inertia-dream where everyone’s knee-deep in murk and one step forward yanks them two back.
It’s tempting to urge the stuck trio on: “Guys, get a grip. DO something!” But here Mamet springs his trap. If you want them to flee their funk and take action, you’re abetting them, since they’re planning to commit a crime.
A while back, a guy paid Donny $90 for a buffalo-head nickel. Donny, who isn’t the brightest gem in the tiara, had no idea the coin was so valuable. And since the guy looked as if he’d just made a sweetheart deal, the coin’s probably worth five times more, maybe even “real classical money.”
So Donny and Teach strategize in language that’s also mud-stuck. Where you expect precision, they wax vague about their goal (“on the thing,” says Teach, “tell me everything”) and about fuzzy business ethics where one does the right thing — only for oneself. They speak so rapid-fire that by the end of act two, if they weren’t talking about robbery and violence, you’d swear they were Abbott and Costello questioning “Who’s on first?”
Mamet’s conception of character was radical for the time. He won’t let his people tell things “gratuitously” about themselves. Most playwrights fill in background details as they go along (in the TV show CSI, someone’s always explaining a chemical reaction to someone who should know it). Mamet omits all backstory. His characters exist, literally and only, in the present. Who knows where they came from? Who knows what they’re capable of? You glean occasional snippets. (Teach is staying at a hotel, so he’s got some means of support; Bobby’s twitches suggest a junkie; why do police cars always circle the block?) “No matter how revelatory of character [a detail] seems to be,” Mamet says, “leave it out: there isn’t any character except action.”
Donny and Teach value “action” above all.
But — and here Mamet trips you up again — they don’t “act.” Act one’s more like a prologue; two, an epilogue. During the intermission they should have acted, but didn’t. Put them in bowler hats near a leafless tree and Don and Teach become Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, biding their time with talk while awaiting a big event. Buffalo is Godot-obsessed. And like Godot, Donny and Teach’s linchpin, the apparently heinous Fletcher Post, never shows.
Because Mamet cuts away his characters’ pasts, Buffalo’s always been open for varied interpretations, from comedy (Pacino played Teach as a buffoon) to Mean Street mayhem (Duval played Teach lean and mean). For Compass Theatre, director Ruff Yeager sticks to the present moment and lets the backstory, and even the humor, fall where it may. I caught a preview and, even though it had some rough spots, the performances had a stark, improvisational feel: Donny, Teach, and Bobby make up their plot line by line as they go along.
Chad Jaeger packs his set, Don’s basement-level junk shop, with rows of secondhand items, from wooden chairs hanging on the walls to glass-cased jewelry. The set’s realistic in great detail but feels far too orderly — compulsively tidy, even — for such a chaotic scene. Josh Hyatt’s mid-'70s period costumes feature a disco outfit for Teach: thick white belt, brown polyester slacks, and a dull-bronze silk shirt with diagonal stripes that look a lot like snakeskins.
Teach would subscribe to that old saying, “Even if you aren’t paranoid, it doesn’t mean they still aren’t out to get you.” Matt Scott’s Teach regards everyone as a two-sided coin: friend and foe. Scott has the paranoia and the need for human contact down but goes over the top vocally — a high, acted whine — for Teach’s hysteria. As Bob, Don’s gofer/protégé (and the only one who makes any money in the play), Nathan Dean Snyder’s eyes, like a young dog’s, search for security in others’. Walter Murray’s fatherly Don provides a semblance of stability, though underneath he’s trapped in a world, much like our own, where business is war by other means and value has become unstable.
American Buffalo, by David Mamet
Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Ruff Yeager; cast: Walter Murray, Matt Scott, Nathan Dean Snyder; scenic design, Chad Jaeger; costumes, Josh Hyatt; lighting, Mitchell Simkovsky
Playing through February 11; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-688-9210.