Theater review: David Mamet's 'American Buffalo' at Studio Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How fitting that Joy Zinoman's parting directorial act for Studio Theatre should be "American Buffalo," David Mamet's cunning portrait of small-time thievery. Like the company she founded, the piece dates from the mid-1970s. And it takes place in Zinoman's home town of Chicago, where, as a child actress, she first indulged her passion for the stage.

But these sentimental associations are not the only resonant facets apparent on this splendid evening. The three-character tragicomedy plays to the qualities that Studio audiences have come to admire in Zinoman's best work: antennae finely tuned for actors' emotional pitches; an affinity for the verbal altitudes scaled by the theater's best writers; an abiding love of the mysterious alchemy often catalyzed in Studio's enveloping little spaces.

(Is it a weird bit of cosmic plotting that the director makes her exit with the words of one David M. as another -- David Muse -- prepares to take over her position as the company's artistic director at summer's end?)

You do wonder as you sit down to the 35-year-old play, set in the cluttered junk shop of Edward Gero's Donny -- a guy who's sort of a mole on the rear end of capitalism -- how well "American Buffalo" is going to hold up. Veteran theatergoers may feel as if the epithet-spewing miscreants Mamet conjures are no longer unique; his work has inspired a generation of imitators. And sometimes these days, Mamet's staccato dialogue of half-finished thoughts can sound like a parody of Mamet.

Thanks, though, to some perceptive casting and, as it turns out, the durability of these hard-luck characters, "American Buffalo" remains a gleefully flinty slice of burnt-out life: taut, funny and, in the end, surprisingly touching. It will occur to you that Mamet's caper comedy is also the affecting story of the yearning of men for sons, and of sons for fathers.

Zinoman gathers her A-team designers -- Russell Metheny on set, Helen Q. Huang on costumes, Michael Giannitti on lighting -- to inject visual panache into the detritus of Donny's existence. The first things we hear and see are the wheels of a passing elevated train and the shadow it casts on the doodads that fill the shelves and display cases of Donny's bleak little domain. It's an emporium so halfhearted that the stolen goods in the place hardly look worth fencing.

The discards include the slovenly types who hang around the shop, hitting up Donny for money and attention: the taciturn young junkie Bobby (Jimmy Davis) and the bumbling street hustler Teach (Peter Allas), a walking repository of really stupid brainstorms. You get the feeling that not only would these dolts score miserably on their SATs, they would not even be able to find the testing site.

"This is common sense!" the gold-chained, Fu Manchu'd Teach exclaims at one point. The occasion for his declaration is the absurdly backward plan he and Donny are devising, to burglarize the home of a customer who had been in the store to buy a buffalo-head nickel for a sum that Donny considered princely. Convinced that the gentleman is a collector sitting on a fortune in coins, they hatch the ludicrous scheme, which includes Teach's genius notion of calling the victim to make sure he's not home.

That is, if he can manage to dial the right number.

Allas, in the surefire nincompoop's role, conveys a Teach of apt, hair-trigger volatility and truly laughable cluelessness. It's a tribute to the performance that he can seem both clownish and dangerous; the gun he maladroitly flashes sure helps in the illusion. "I am calm!" he insists, wild-eyed, at another moment. "I'm just upset!"

Entwined in the risible shenanigans is a rawer story, of the paternal feelings Donny has for Bobby, a boy of meager intelligence lost to addiction. Davis brings a spectral vacancy to Bobby that fully elicits in Gero's Donny the requisite instincts for protectiveness, tinged with resentment. Is Bobby's neediness a mask for a more manipulative nature? The subtlety of the piece is such that we get only a tantalizing inkling that he's an operator, and that in suspecting Bobby's motives, Teach may for once in his life be onto something.

Like the others, Gero proves a fine physical embodiment of his character, and he makes authentic Donny's credulousness, his tolerance for the excesses of both Teach and Bobby. Early on, there's a lovely bit in which Donny schools the young addict on the importance of eating a nutritious breakfast, and Gero conducts the lesson in an earnest way that allows us to sense the irony, even if Donny doesn't.

A plain old honest approach, one that keenly reveals what these characters mean to one another, takes an audience far. It's the route Zinoman has relied on for a long time, and at the end of this particular road serves her exceedingly well, one more time.

American Buffalo,

by David Mamet. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Sound, Gil Thompson; dialect coach, Elizabeth van den Berg; fight choreographer, Robb Hunter. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through June 13 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit or call 202-332-3300.

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