STAGE REVIEW : Riding Mamet’s ‘Buffalo’ on a Quest

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“A play,” David Mamet has written, “is a quest for a solution.” Most viewers of Mamet’s play, “American Buffalo”--particularly as read by director Jeff Seymour’s cast at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood--might wonder what exactly has been solved by Mamet’s characters. Donny, Bobby and Teach are, kindly put, less than the sum of their parts.

Look again. It’s the quest for a solution that is important, and while “American Buffalo” is surely open to charges of swimming in place for most of the first act, it beats with a somber, tragic pulse underneath a skin of tumultuous talk. The goal seems so close, but in Mamet’s schema, human nature will always throw the wrench in the works. Think of the search for El Dorado, transferred to a South Side Chicago junk shop, and “American Buffalo” gains in value.

At the same time, it’s clear that Seymour hasn’t approached the project as a quest to reveal the Great American Play. For a reasonably young, living playwright, Mamet has already had more than his share of baggage attached to his name. This country’s “greatest working playwright” is a burdensome label to carry.


“American Buffalo” is about commercial and human transactions, and the first sight of Donny’s shop (Seymour, as usual at the Gnu, designed the set and seemingly bought out a real junk shop to fill it) reveals that this is a businessman who’d do better if he played cards less. When Robert Costanzo’s Donny gives lessons to Dennis Christopher’s Bobby on the finer points of business, we’re watching a meeting between character flaws.

Lesson 1: “There’s business and there’s friendship.” Bobby isn’t quite sure where this primer on common sense is going, but Teach (Joe Spano) read that book long ago. His opening spiel, a sort of verbal rape on one of the women he and Donny play cards with, tells us where he puts friendship. I’ll be nice, after the cards are cut and the money has been collected.

The American Buffalo of the title is a nickel Donny sold to a guy for what he now suspects was far less than its worth. Donny views himself as fair but just; so, he reasons, this con man deserves a little larceny in return. Teach’s first move, of course, is to push Bobby out of the deal.

Fairness and justice are values for Mamet as well. While he doesn’t buy comic, lampooning effects at the expense of his characters (as Sam Shepard is wont to do), neither does Mamet reward them for their foolishness. His art is not only in creating a perfectly realized metaphorical world. (This is a junk shop, but it’s also an operating business.) It is in finding the language that not only sounds right, but is where these men run for cover.

The problem at the Gnu, strangely, isn’t with Mamet’s language or Seymour’s cast. It’s with the audience, now familiar with the Mamet lingo and indulgently laughing at every phrase like fans of a guitar hero whooping it up at every note. The opening-night audience sometimes forgot their responsibility as part of the performance--chortling through and over lines and behavior, threatening to impede on the pacing itself.

Spano, Costanzo and Christopher have not forgotten their responsibility, however. Teach can be far fiercer than Spano allows him to be, but the plan (to borrow Teach’s favorite word) is to let this third-rate loser talk himself down a hole, and only then let out the inner beast.


Teach has been played before as a sloppy buffoon (Al Pacino) and as a keg of dynamite (Robert Duvall). Spano goes for something in between: a sinewy macho exterior hiding a deeply self-doubting core. He treads quietly through Teach’s idiocy (the knee-jerk chortlers truly irritate here), so that the final image of him wearing a dunce cap is a climactic touch, not a repetition of a previous effect.

The toughest assignment is Christopher’s--how do you make a dumb street kid, who doesn’t even have the advantage of snappy street lingo, interesting? Christopher’s answer is to suggest that, offstage, Bobby joined up with some smarter business heads. Like Mamet, he keeps us guessing.

Costanzo will remind some of a less-cartoonish version of Danny DeVito. But rather than play DeVito’s stock-in-trade, the lout you love to hate, Costanzo plays Donny as the bushwacked conscience of the piece. He is also, like his colleagues, Chicago to the bone.

At a time when some people are re-evaluating “the Reagan Revolution” and the renewed romance with free enterprise--the affliction at the center of “American Buffalo”--this 12-year-old play communicates. But amid the laughter, will anyone get the message?

At 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $15-$17.50; (818) 508-5344.