Review

Don't miss a word of this 'American Buffalo'

The Deaf West-Cal State L.A. production of 'American Buffalo' adds a vivid dimension to a Mamet classic

David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” which premiered in Chicago in 1975, startled and delighted the theater world with its dialogue: broken, overlapping sentence fragments, studded with expletives, at once highly mannered and faithful to the rhythms of everyday conversation.

The three low-rent con men in this grim morality tale, who ineptly plot to steal a buffalo head nickel, grapple with existential questions they are fundamentally incapable of articulating. Pursuing their sad and corrupt version of the American dream, they're hardly heroes — yet their halting, explosive vernacular has had a profound influence on the way we speak today, on the stage, on TV, even in life.

The current co-production of “American Buffalo,” by Deaf West and Cal State L.A. adds a new dimension: American Sign Language.

Troy Kotsur, a deaf actor, plays Teacher, a fractious bully whose semi-coherent verbal harangues are the source of his catastrophic charisma. Under the direction of Stephen Rothman, Kotsur uses ASL to transform Mamet’s words into a visual symphony and this challenging character into a poignant figure of isolation.

Kotsur’s signs are athletic, often violent, expressive, witty and lewd (several have been specially designed to express unique Mametian locutions), and he throws his whole body into his smallest gesture. His performance is so physical and intense that I was impressed to see him still on his feet at the certain call. (Ken George’s capacious and evocative junk-shop set doesn’t come out as well; Teacher smashes it up with a baseball bat.)

The hearing audience can listen via headset to Teacher’s dialogue, voiced backstage by Collin Bressie. Paul Raci, as shop owner Donny, and Matthew Ryan Pest, as Donny’s teenage protégé, Bobby, often speak and sign simultaneously. When Donny signs without speaking, his dialogue is voiced by James Foster. When Donny and Bobby speak together without signing, their lines are projected on two onstage screens (sometimes what’s printed doesn’t quite match what’s spoken).

This system may sound complicated, but the upshot is that nobody, deaf or hearing, has to miss a word.

Mamet never explains how these three men came to know one another. They live like rats on the edge of society, sifting through its castoffs, and Raquel Barreto has costumed them in cheap, flashy 1970s threads perfectly in sync with their gritty milieu. I did briefly wonder where Donny learned ASL well enough to follow Teacher’s rants. But the men’s shared language adds resonance to their bond.

Other characters are mentioned — poker buddies who hang out at a nearby diner — but never appear. The junk shop is a world unto itself, an effect played up here by Joe Cerqua’s sound design: when the door opens, a blast of city noise is briefly heard, then cut off.

Midway through the second act things get a little sluggish. There is a great deal of plot to be hashed out, and the actors’ interaction begins to stagnate.

But the explosive finale works: Raci and Pest both occasionally come across as a bit more decent and intelligent than their characters, but these qualities make their doomed filial rapport persuasive — even heartbreaking.

“American Buffalo,” State Playhouse, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (818) 762-2998 or www.deafwest.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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