David Mamet's "American Buffalo" is set in a junk shop, but there are jewels to be found in the play and they are thrillingly laid out for us in the Geffen Playhouse's dynamically acted production directed by Randall Arney.
What a pleasure to experience again the ferocious gusto of Mamet's language when it was still being composed for individual characters. Lately, Mamet seems to be writing for his own bullhorn, but this relatively early work, which had its Broadway premiere in 1977, reminds us of the reason his style set off a revolution in American playwriting.
It wasn't simply the Molotov cocktail of profanity that was so startling at the time. The shock of the new ran deeper. More than dramatizing the hustle of bottom-rung con men, Mamet carved an original dramatic model with the knife of their desperation. The result, as pathetic, funny and scary as his incompetent swindlers, provided a street view of the American soul.
The success of this "American Buffalo" is a credit to the performers — Bill Smitrovich, Freddy Rodriguez and Ron Eldard — and to the director for recognizing that, contrary to what Mamet has dogmatically asserted, a play without convincing characters is just a bag of air. The riffs, rants and routines that form the drama are psychologically embodied here, emanating from the minds of petty capitalists determined, by hook or by crook, to get a piece of the action.
Smitrovich plays Don, the owner of the junk shop who lords over his kingdom with a gruff yet fatherly presence. Built like a heavy-lifting custodian, he knows that inside his store (transformed into a mesmerizing Salvation Army jumble by scenic designer Takeshi Kata), his word is law.
The play begins one hangoverish morning with Don holding forth to his gofer Bob (Rodriguez) about the difference between business and friendship. Don is filled with advice for this sweet yet stupefied young man, whose brain seems fried from drugs. He urges him to never skip breakfast ("You know how much nutritive benefits they got in coffee? Zero.") and exhorts him to always learn from his experience.
The paternal tone may seem humorously misplaced given that Don is plotting a heist with Bob's help, but the relationship has a peculiar authenticity. The warmth between them is genuinely touching despite the criminal nature of their operation.
But the felonious menace intensifies once "Teach" (Eldard) hears about the robbery the men are planning of a valuable Buffalo nickel that Don sold to a customer for 90 bucks and now wants to get back. Teach, as volatile as he is clumsy, tries to elbow Bob out of the picture, telling Don that this job requires a professional, not a "skin-popping" boy.
The free enterprise system in all its cutthroat splendor is thus put before us in a dark comedy that will test the division between business and friendship that Don holds so dear. But the play's moral isn't half as enthralling as its verbal vivacity.
Teach speaks in violent spasms rather than in sentences. He enters the store in a barrage of curses and regularly whips himself up into a pontificating frenzy that explains his nickname. Eldard, resembling a downtrodden version of the singer Meat Loaf in his rock 'n' roll heyday, wonderfully captures the clownish rage of a two-bit crook barred by talent and temperament from the big time.
Words dribble out of Bob's mouth slowly, his thoughts lagging even further behind. Rodriguez brings an affectionate sympathy to this stunned character. His Bob may not have much to say, but he is far more agreeably social than Teach, whose small talk consists of nothing but violent tirades.
Don doesn't always feel the need to dominate, but Smitrovich makes clear that he is the ruler of this realm. His voice doesn't crackle with authority, but there's a rumble of threat in the background. The restraint of Smitrovich's utterly realistic portrayal is the key to its expressive power.
How refreshing to come upon a production of a Mamet play not hijacked by the spotlight-hogging antics of a marquee name. There's something refreshingly blue-collar about Arney's staging. Under his clarifying, no-nonsense direction, his committed actors make every moment of "American Buffalo," whether comic or near tragic, exemplarily real.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 12.
Tickets: $47 to $77
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
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