The timelessness of Mamet’s early work is evident in the current production of American Buffalo at Geffen Playhouse. This gritty three hander from the mid 70s still resonates today. The play features many of the trademarks seen in later Mamet plays: staccato dialogue, clever wordplay, harsh accusations and a pendulum-swinging style of allegiance.
Bill Smitrovich plays Don Dubrow, proprietor of a junk shop. Freddy Rodriguez plays Bob, a puppy dog of a friend to Don and Teach (played by Ron Eldard). The trio moves hazily in and out of a plot revolving around the titular nickel, each amazed that a five cent piece may be worth $90 or more. Greed and distrust flow into the relationship, such that the characters begin to lose the confidence in carrying out their plan to rescue the nickel from its owner for greater riches.
The suitably claustrophobic set by Takeshi Kata is well-utilized by the actors. They weave in, around and through the endless junk hanging and stored in Don’s shop. Poker, the classic game of male bonding, is an ideal platform for Mamet to establish the characters’ personalities early in the play. Mamet’s humor pops up at all the right moments, revealing insights and providing the occasional steam valve of tension release. Perhaps the best such line of the evening is “God forbid something inevitable happens.” Buffalo, the city rather than the nickel, is occasionally referenced, as are other subtle touchstones from the rust belt Great Lakes area stretching between Chicago and Albany. Explosions of violence are jarring; Ned Mochel is credited as “Violence Designer.”
As the trio begins trying to plan the execution of their heist, it is referred to as “the thing.” The characters somehow believe that not giving their plot any specificity it is somehow immune to failure or to discovery. These foibles are brought to the surface as allegiances and loyalties ebb and flow. A Mamet play can be counted on for witty dialogue, uncomfortable probes into the human psyche and at least several hearty guffaws. American Buffalo is no exception, and it set the stage for Mamet’s prodigious work thereafter. The Geffen’s revival of this seminal play reminds us why it generated so much discussion when the play first appeared nearly four decades ago.