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With American Buffalo, written in 1976, David Mamet conclusively established his claim as a major playwright, having fully absorbed the then still recent innovations of Beckett and Pinter with his absolutely distinctive voice and resolutely American themes. This new revival at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood provides an opportunity to reconsider its classic status over the perspective of decades, and also, as with any part of the established canon, whether a new production offers anything fresh and insightful in its interpretation.
Three guys, hanging out in a junk shop: older owner Donnie (Bill Smitrovich), a dim-witted kid and recovering junkie Bobby (Freddy Rodriguez), and a voluble, volatile lowlifer in malcontented middle-age, Teach (Ron Eldard). A coin collector has paid Donnie $90 for a buffalo nickel he found amidst the store’s detritus; Donnie feels affronted he’s been had by a privileged sharpie and plots to have Bobby burglarize his home. Teach cuts himself in on the action. With a singular exception, though, these hapless hustlers are all talk and no action.
Their expletive-laden dialogue no longer carries the sting of transgressive novelty it did in the mid-1970s, though it remains tangy and its cadence instantly recognizable (and alas, mostly still not printable, even personal favorites such as the oxymoronic “dyke cocksucker”). When the play was new, it was perhaps possible to mistake this lexicon of abuse for realistic speech, and to interpret the drama in terms of a socially conscious critique. What does remain white-hot relevant to this day is their sense of corrosive class grievance, as these guys (if they voted at all) were certainly Democrats then, and if they were still alive (which would be doubtful), they would be core Republicans now (as has happened with Mamet himself).
Nevertheless, Mamet’s world, despite its grounding in acute social observation and psychological insight, remains more metaphysical than actual, a universe onto itself with its own rules and laws. And the great inspiration of this production is not merely to emphasize the inherent comedy and pathos of the piece, but also to establish its continuity with its artistic past. Much as Beckett alluded to the music hall, one can hear surprising echoes of the ritualistic burlesque routines of Abbott and Costello in many of the curlicues of rhetorical misunderstandings.
Randall Arney, artistic director of the Geffen and formerly of Chicago’s Steppenwolf, knows this territory well, and he has chosen to direct a kinder, gentler American Buffalo. Teach, as played by such actors as Robert Duvall, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, has invariably manifested a bullying sense of menace and barely suppressed violence. Eldard takes another path entirely, an avuncular complainer continually taking umbrage at an unceasing barrage of perceived slights. He’s less a pot-stirrer than a frustrated whiner, not so unlike a more dangerous iteration of Oliver Hardy. (This viewer couldn’t shake the impression that Eldard, like Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier before him, had found his character with the right nose.) It’s a most original take, and it brings out notes in the play that are not routinely heard, although it makes the patented Brandoism of the climactic furniture-smashing somewhat less cathartic.
Rodriguez’s Bobby reveals the least of himself, as he ought, and his avoidance of gravity achieves a legitimate plaintiveness. Smitrovich makes a stalwart Donnie, and his relationship here to Bobby may be more sentimentally Steinbeckian than Mamet had in mind, although it is true to the text’s preoccupation with personal loyalty versus business self-interest. And although it is inarguably now kosher to deliver Shakespeare’s lines in American accents, Mamet’s exchanges certainly achieve their most musical tone with consistent, undiluted Chicago vowels, here pointedly eschewed.
One previously unnoticed Mamet inspiration: as the characters essentially spend the second act “Waiting for Fletcher,” their putative co-conspirator, he of course never shows up. The brilliant touch is that it’s because his jaw has been broken, so he can’t talk.
Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through May 12)
Cast: Ron Eldard, Freddie Rodriguez, Bill Smitrovich
Director: Randall Arney
Playwright: David Mamet
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Costume designer: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko
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