American Buffalo

By David Mamet
Directed by Rick Lombardo
At the New Repertory Theatre
Newton Highlands-- Through April 13th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

A generation after its Chicago premiere, "American Buffalo" is widely considered a classic of our stage. Like many traditional plays, David Mamet's chamber piece for three actors focuses on "honor" in conflict with love and with long-term enlightened self-interest -- although within the world of the play both "love" and "honor" are so buried and twisted that it is sometimes difficult to catch so much as a glimpse of them. But its basic form is that of the revenge play. Each of its three characters has been humiliated, and is determined to wipe out that dishonor whatever the cost.

When "American Buffalo" first appeared, Mamet's language had the power to shock and to liberate. Four letter words had been creeping over the barriers of censorship and onto the stage under the banner of "authenticity" or "characterization", but here was a play that insisted that verbal violence can be a form of poetry. It is through the assaultive rhythms and the accumulating connotations of the repetitive obscenities that the glimpse of love and honor, the epiphanic flash of pure gold in the midst of a garbage heap, occurs. Audiences are usually so delighted to have braved this assault and come upon this nugget that they leave the theatre pleased with themselves and in charity with the world that they share with Mamet's characters--- at least until the next batch of ten-year-olds curses them out, Mamet-style.

Rick Lombardo at The New Rep has mounted a fine revival of "American Buffalo". The production is strongest in its visual elements. It is hard to imagine how the set design by Janie Fliegel could be bettered. On the New Rep's intimate stage, she has created a junk shop in a basement room with a single sidewalk-level window and a flight of stairs down to the entrance. In act two the window and entrance of the shop is awash with a cruelly realistic night time rain. Inside, the first impression is of unrelieved and chaotic ugliness. Every item in Don's Resale Shop is ugly, and the shop itself is an underground pigsty, without even a shaft of golden sunlight to perk up the gloom. Then you notice that you could put a frame around any portion of the set and the arrangement of line and shadow within that frame would be as beautiful as one of Goya's etchings of the Horrors of War. John Malinowski's lighting design, too, is a subtle comfort. This is a world in which the aesthetic has no value, at least on a conscious level, but the artist's eye is active everywhere. Rick Lombardo's blocking arranges stage pictures any one of which could serve as an icon -- although the pieta the director has devised for the ending crosses the line into conscious quotation and gives the game away.

In this world, which Mamet's title implies is peculiarly American, love, the territory of the Golden Rule, is confined to the small circle of "us"-- and in moments of stress even the few within that charmed circle will be pitched out in favor of number one. None of the characters in "American Buffalo" seems to have a family to serve as the nucleus of an "us", and the ad hoc loyalties they form through rituals of eating or poker-playing are subject to emendation without prior notice. Outside, "Business is Business". Business has its own code, merciless but somehow purer than the family code of loyalty and mutual aid.

To watch the business code in action it is best to observe the guys at the bottom, where the stakes are petty and personal and there are no political notions of ends-versus-means to confuse the issue. For vintage Mamet it is also best to leave women out of the picture. Women are apparently designed by nature to muck things up, and when they step out of the "family" orientation into the world of business -- say into a poker game or a divorce or a harassment suit -- they ignore the male rules of engagement and will stoop to anything.

"American Buffalo" is Donny's play, although his is the least "interesting" part. Donny Dubrow is older and wiser than the other characters, a surrogate daddy. Donny sets things in motion, Donny makes the fatal choices, Donny has the revelations and the reversals. The others are on his territory, and he is the source of money, food, and favors---- heaven knows how, because his income certainly doesn't come from his junk shop's legitimate sales. Possibly he does enough fencing to keep Don's Resale Shop as a front. Because Ken Baltin is playing Donny with a limp I leapt to infer an income source: aha! --thought I-- Donny lives on a disability pension and the shop's his way of giving himself a civic identity and a reason to get up in the morning. I can relate to that. Both my grandfathers scratched along on disability and odd jobs, and both were active in community groups that offered them the opportunity to play the adult male roles that they couldn't play in the economy. Be that as it may, Donny has some ready money in his pocket and time on his hands, but instead of volunteering as church treasurer or running VFW charity drives like my grandpas, Donny has taken on a surrogate son, Bobby.

Bobby is a good charity case. He is pathetically eager to please, but between the equipment he was born with and the damage he has done to it with drugs, he has about the intelligence of a Pomeranian. And like a Pomeranian, he could be really cute if he'd just sit down and shut up. Brian McManamon has chosen to play Bobbie with the affectless shout that certain damaged people substitute for the pitch pattern of normal speech, and with an abusee's lack of motor control. This is a brave choice, and I can defend it intellectually -- but as an audience member I reacted to McManamon's line readings as if they were fingernails screeching across a blackboard. Donny is either a saint to put up with this, or the character's disabilities include deafness.

Ken Baltin has the weight to carry a play: his big, bland face has a natural gravitas, his slow careful speech the air of a man who listens and absorbs, who has accumulated experience and is not incapable of learning from it. Baltin's Donny is basically a nice guy, but when we meet him he is already under the evil spell of "American Business." A man came into his shop and bought a buffalo head nickel for ninety dollars in a sly way that tipped Donny off that-- or gave Donny the illusion that-- the guy is a coin expert who cheated Donny by purchasing for a song a valuable collector's item that he can sell for many times what he paid Donny for it. This pisses Donny off. His entrepreneurial pride is wounded. Donny decides that the guy must be a big deal collector, and that he can undo the humiliation of being bested in a business transaction by arranging the burglary of the guy's place while he is away for the weekend.

Now, Donny's original plan isn't a total dud: he gets Bobby to watch the coin guy's movements, but he isn't going to let Bobby in on the heist itself. That will be carried out by Donny's poker buddy Fletch, a man who is at least smart enough to leave the poker table a big winner. Whether Donny is sparing Bobby involvement in this bit of law-breaking because he is looking out for his protege's best interest, or because Bobby is such a screw-up that any enterprise he is connected to is doomed to failure, isn't clear. Whichever, Donny's plan is sinful, but in a venial rather than a mortal sort of way. Succeed or fail, the amount of trouble the plan can cause is limited. Until Teach deals himself in.

Teach is one of the crooked wanna-be's you see all the way up and down the success ladder, a guy who is so frantically determined to be one up on the other guy and in on all the action that he can't slow down to gather facts or consider consequences. Even the names here, "Don" and "Teach" testify to Mamet's brilliant use of low-life vernacular, which gives the impression of naturalism but is crafted like a Jonsonian comedy of humors. Michael Cecchi's Teach comes in boiling over with rage, bouncing off the walls, and the only time he sits down or slows down after his entrance is when he decides that he has to give Donny the (false) impression that he is sane and in control. Teach is always getting caught out, but he bounces back with an explanation for everything. His motormouth speech is a dazzling rush of four-letter-words, designed to show what a wise guy he is. In fact, each of the character's riffs is obliviously -- by Teach--- and obviously --by Mamet -- built around an internal contradiction visible to the meanest intelligence. Like Shakespeare's Dogberry, every time Teach opens his mouth he proves that he has no idea what he is talking about.

Everything Teach "knows" is garbage. When he's right, it's by accident. When he communicates, it is by subtext and body language. Which is how Teach manages -- similtaneously -- to let Bobby know that something important is going down with Donny and the that boy had better do whatever it takes to avoid being left out, and to convince Donny that allowing Bobby to participate in a grown-up's burglary plan would be such a disaster that it's better to betray the boy.

Although "American Buffalo" sometimes feels stretched a bit thin before its inevitable denouement, and might have been an even better play if confined to one act, the last ten minutes of this script must rank among the most painful and powerful moments in the modern theatre. The New Rep cast makes the most of them.