David Mamet is one of America’s most esteemed and successful, if also expletive-intoxicated, of our home-grown playwrights. He continues to turn out bristling new plays like “Race” and the farcical “November” in 2008. The controversial “Oleanna,” first produced Off Broadway in 1988, was given its first Broadway production earlier this season.
Unquestionably one of Mamet’s more purely entertaining forays into the underbelly of society, “American Buffalo” is now at McCarter Theater in a production that comes courtesy of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It’s good to report that this staging and the performances have an edge on the second Broadway revival seen earlier this season. This is vintage Mamet, and it could not have been served up better than it has been under the direction of Amy Morton, an almost vintage member/ actor of the Steppenwolf Company. Morton, who received a Tony nomination for her role in “August: Osage County” (the role she originated in the Steppenwolf production) has made all the right choices to ensure that we are seeing top-notch Mamet.
It is interesting to note that the 2008 Broadway revival of “American Buffalo” was directed by another Chicago-based director, Robert Falls, the lauded artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Although I liked that production, most of the reviews were not kind to the production or the interplay among its three players. About three lame-brained losers who one rainy Chicago night plan to pull off a robbery, “American Buffalo” is totally dependent on the sparks generated by its three actors.
You can almost see the sparks generated by Tracy Letts as the unstable and explosive Teach whose feigned literacy is no barrier to his stupidity. Letts is not only a veteran actor/playwright with Steppenwolf but the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for “August: Osage County.” He is quite a sight with his long grey hair pulled into a tight pony tail. Tacky looking in his gaudy print shirt under a tan leather jacket, Letts postures with an attitude that is as comical as it is terrorizing. When his mouth isn’t discharging his rat-a-tat-tat philosophy, he is twitching his leg. Teach may take the prize as the most stunningly inept hoodlum in dramatic literature, and Letts never lets us forget it. His wild eyes add an extra dimension to Teach’s volatile behavior that is unforgettable.
Kurt Ehrmann gives a wonderfully unsettling performance as Don, the proprietor of the junk shop. With larceny on his mind Don may be the play’s most level-headed dunce. But Ehrmann’s modulated performance, especially as he begins to see where this botched-up caper is headed, brings a very different but also very plausible dramatic weight to the play.
Patrick Andrews is effective and also strangely affecting as Bob, Don’s dense apprentice. In the company of these three petty crooks who spend more time reacting to each other than enacting their plan to steal a coin collection is to appreciate this particular play for its uniquely audacious and scabrous quality.
“American Buffalo” is an early Mamet and not quite in the same league as “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But it remains astonishingly ripe with the once raw, now al dente, language that propels the characters, their puerile behavior, and petty scheme. The dialogue may no longer be as shocking, the situation may no longer be as compelling, but the characters’ actions continue to unnerve and unsettle us. Certainly their incessant banter is as funny, ferociously street-smart, and as intentionally dopey as it ever was.
As designed by Kevin Depinet, the neighborhood junk shop with its impressive floor to ceiling, side wall to side wall collection of discards, broken-down furniture, and memorabilia is in keeping with the tradition: a nightmarish architectural wonder. It is second in organized chaos only to the three pathetic examples of humanity that inhabit it.
As these crooks contract with other in the light of possible betrayal by a fourth unseen conspirator, and within the framework of their ruthless code of honor, they also subtly and unwittingly explore the importance of loyalty, friendship, and the need for love even among society’s low life. While the play courses the incompetence of Teacher, the junk shop owner, and his young sidekick in their muddling middle-of-the-night escapade, it is the detailed idiosyncrasies of these characters that are the heart of the matter. It is in revealing and reveling in these details that this company shines.
“American Buffalo,” through Sunday, March 28, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. $15 to $60. 609-258-2787.