Excruciatingly funny, dark as a dungeon and peculiarly exhilarating despite its bleakness, American Buffalo secured David Mamet's leading place in American theater when it was produced on Broadway in 1977. The killer cast it attracted then, including Robert Duvall, Kenneth McMillan and John Savage, indicates just what a jewel it is for actors, and the current CityStage Ensemble production at the Theatre at Jack's proves the point again for the local scene: Three of Denver's finest actors get to stretch their talents in whole new ways. The remarkable result reminds you how intense the theatrical experience can be.
The story is simple enough on the surface; it's the feeling, innuendo and frustration coursing under the skin that give the play its character. A scathing indictment of American business ethics, American Buffalo is also a kind of familial fable meant to remind us how human beings can get lost in their own rationalizations.
Don owns a junkshop, and Bobby is his young gofer--a heroin addict in recovery who may not be too bright but who certainly cares for his mentor. Don's friend and colleague, Teach, a two-bit criminal whose rage is always spilling out in elaborate explicatives, enters the scene to shoot the breeze and blow off steam about his latest encounter with Grace and Ruthie, a lesbian couple who have irons in a variety of illicit fires.
Teach's baroque harangue against Ruthie is so petty, it's difficult to describe. His is one monstrous mentality. But Mamet, being the poet he is, doesn't allow us to simply dismiss Teach. The violent temperament is not all there is to the man. His relationship with Don is oddly warm, and the way he confides in his boss evinces a wealth of trust and affection.
Don and Bobby are planning a burglary of a coin collector's house (the play's title refers to a buffalo-head nickel Don sold his mark), and when Teach finds out about it and all the money involved, he insists on being cut in--and on cutting Bobby out. Teach spends much of the first act convincing Don that Bobby is unfit for service. Eventually, yet another con man is brought in on the deal, and Teach gets a rude awakening that leaves him mad as a hatter.
This show can't have been easy to direct or to perform. The language, though straight from the gutter, is arranged with immaculate precision. The emotional content of the story is intense, despite the idiocy of these men's ambitions and motives--none of them even know the value of the coins they want to steal. The characters seem vaguely familiar--perhaps influenced by movie hoods of the past, but quite different from them, too. These are brutish men who nevertheless have a brute's capacity for attachment and loyalty, as well as the very human capacity for despair.
But Laura Cuetara is one tough director. Employing a muscular style, she uses every inch of a very cluttered space and orchestrates tremendous energy in the characters' emotional explosions, introducing at least one episode with a baseball bat that's not in the script. Christopher Leo's immensely inventive performance as Teach drives the psychological tensions of the play. This man is a volcano erupting in small bursts of fire at the least provocation. But he is also needy, unsure of himself, and even devoted to Don. Leo lets us see the pathos as well as the reprehensible selfishness of a man trapped in vicious feelings he can't decipher.
Dan Hiester gives one of the most persuasive performances of his career as the fatherly Don, a scumbag with a touch of conscience. His protectiveness toward Bobby--in long lectures, he exhorts his apprentice to eat properly and take care of himself--and his ready forgiveness of Teach are almost reminiscent of biblical tales. And Hiester understands how to use that kindly concern--along with a gravel bark and a slight whine--to reveal the ugliness of the con artist.
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Bobby, meanwhile, is the innocent in a den of thieves, and Christopher Tabb arouses sympathy without ever sinking us in sentimentality. Bobby speaks in short sentences or single words, and Tabb makes those words count--damaged, frightened and a little slow, Tabb's Bobby is as guileless as a thief can be.
Mamet resolves the tensions of the play in a wholly natural, anti-dramatic way. Nothing much happens, and it isn't supposed to. This is a play about talk, not action. But along the way, Mamet has explored such subjects as honor and ethics, friendship and loyalty. None of his characters are lovable, intelligent or captivating. And yet the spectacle of their humanity, the complexity of their relationships, and especially the revelation of the way their minds work, are absolutely riveting.
This is CityStage's first offering this fall. It bodes well for the coming season.
American Buffalo, through October 6 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, #101, 433-8082.