Mamet’s “American Buffalo” In Play at Stages

The crowd at the theater always tells you something about the show. The audience at Stages Theatre changes for the different types of plays they perform. Last Saturday’s audience for their production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” was an adventurous, bright-eyed crowd. They looked like they were expecting something.

The play opened in Chicago in 1975 and went on to Broadway two years later. The New York Times exclaimed in admiration, “The man can write!” This is the play that launched Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning career.

The Stages production opens on an elaborate set of an over-stuffed junk shop with lamps and rattan dangling from the rafters. It is set in the ’70s, so it’s fitting that the three characters are the only people in the shop during the course of the play. Some themes in the play are eerily familiar today.

The play opens with the shop owner, Don Dubrow (Mike Martin, who also produced the show), mentoring his younger friend Bobby (Adam Evans) about life in the big city and discussing recent events. As the actions develop, they start to do something interesting: They start to talk about business. “That’s what business is. People, taking care of themselves,” Donny tells Bob. “All right, cuz’ look, Bob, there’s business and then there’s friendship. You know, there are many things. And when you’re out on the street you hear a lot of things.” The story is told in the vernacular of the common person. Mamet writes what he hears people say.

Prices and policies are all a-jumble as Mamet mixes the loose language into his own magical brew. The lack of specificity when fumbling around the edges of the concept of commerce is one of the main themes of the story. The characters sort of just gesture towards the idea of business with a wave of the hand as if referring to some faraway goal which they have only heard about through rumor. The word “thing” is used often to refer to products, services, agreements, and… "jobs." The job is the thing.

Enter Walter “Teach” Cole (Bob Tully), the tightly-wound, gutter-mouthed coercer who spits expletives around the room as if into a spittoon. He is Donny's long-time accomplice, and he insinuates himself into the “thing” of the day, which is a “job.”

“Job,” of course, is the street vernacular for a burglary. It is not incidental that this business owner and his two associates mix the word for work with the word for theft. They see the two as interchangeable. While perusing Donny’s display case and asking for the going price, Teach remarks, “What a bunch of fuckin thieves!,” to which Donny replies, “What a bunch of crap, huh?”

The things! The THINGS! You know what I mean... We're talking about business here!Walt "Teach" Cole

Martin is convincing as the “one-man show” that runs the shop at least at some kind of profit. He subtly portrays the cluelessness of the one among the three that makes a regular income, but doesn’t have any concept of property. Everything he evaluates is estimated through other people. There are several telling transactions where he can’t seem to come up with a price by himself. He mistakes how much money he is giving Bobby with how much he is loaning him, and with how much he has agreed to loan him. The junk shop is a fitting setting for this play in two acts. All prices are haggled over rather than directly stated.

The inability to evaluate goods in this junk shop is not solved at the time of the transaction. Unresolved questions of value sometimes linger long after the traders have struck the deal, whether the price is paid in dollars, sweat, or blood. This is the message writ large in the title of the play, “American Buffalo.” A coin of undetermined value dating from “19—something” is the goal around which the lives of these three men swing for a day. The inability to prioritize values is more of a blind spot than a lack of resources. Donny explains the process of evaluating the coin to Bobby, while pointing at his copy of the Blue Book of US Coins.

The two older men like the idea of business. They discuss a successful product line from the ’30s (Donny has the items in his display case) but conclude the producers where a bunch of thieves. They say things like, "I have always treated everyone more than fair," and “It’s good business.” But Donny also complains that his customers treat him as if Donny were their doorman: “Like he’s doing me some favor, just by coming in my shop!” Martin nails Donny’s cluelessness.

When seller's-remorse sets in, Donny is not able to distinguish between business and its destroyer, or between property and plunder. They decide to perform a “job” to recover the goods without the owner's consent. So they spend their day plotting to acquire something that Donny had just sold because he thought he could sell it for more, without spending ten minutes researching how much has been paid for such coins.

Bob Tully is certainly convincing as the foul-mouthed instigator. He belts out cuss words like a drill sergeant, but when the words are “… and blah-blah-blah” or “…and yeah-yeah-yeah” he still chucks them out like blocks of wood, albeit smaller ones. Tully's character, “Teach,” can only think in concretes. When Donny asks him to imagine a hypothetical person who might have not written down the combo to the safe, he declares, “Well, that is another thing entirely. But Don! How do you know he didn’t write it down!?” There are many such comical moments amid the tension.

After securing a buyer, “the phone guy,” for the booty they are about to plunder, Donny, frustrated by the buyer's questions, exclaims, “Fuckin' asshole!” This is his customer he is referring to, the guy who will be funding his venture. But the purpose of each transaction is lost in this store of junk. Customers are the bad guys.

Bobby (Adam Evans) is the somewhat honest young man who is under Donny’s tutelage. Evans plays him as a likable, but maybe a little slow, helper, which works well in the play. He is small and quiet compared to the two scheming adults. Occasionally he seems to know what is going on. But he also needs money from Donny, and in his attempts to solve his own problems, he sets the scene for the looming crisis of the play. With a crisis of value underlying all their actions, the trio cannot avoid the subsequent bloodletting.

This production is a little adventurous for the Stages Theatre and it is good to see them broadening their field again. It is also interesting seeing the seminal ’70s play performed during our more modern economic and political controversy. What does this play about people groping blindly for a concept of commerce, but who have no concept of property and cannot distinguish business from looting, say about today’s political climate? You tell me. This is an interactive review, so please leave your comment below.

"American Buffalo" runs through February 19th.

STAGEStheatre (714) 525-4484 400 E. Commonwealth Ave. Fullerton, Ca. 92832 American Buffalo

Addendum

I spoke to Adam Poynter of Stages Theatre, who also mentioned the peripheral nature of the characters' understanding of commerce. He said it reminded him of a "Reservoir Dogs" in the way that the characters had lengthy and involved discussions about the ethics of what they were doing.

This is an interesting observation. For one thing, "American Buffalo" predated "Reservoir Dogs" by 17 years. That puts the foul language in new context. Quentin Tarantino was controversial in the ’90s for using so many expletives. That helps us understand why people would actually cover their ears at stagings of "American Buffalo."

And secondly, that makes the ethical small-talk from both stories seem more pronounced. These sub-class swindlers are not devoid of ethics. They even give a lot of thought to the rightness of their actions. But they are really bad at it. That is probably a topic for a whole other review of the play.

Second Addendum

A second review might try to discover the reason Donny and "Teach" are not able to distinguish between property and plunder. One could look for societal norms and cultural influences that obscure the distinction. And one would have to look no farther than another review of "American Buffalo".

The author makes a very common statement that can be found often in modern literature and popular narratives: “…ultimately, profit always comes through exploiting other people in some fashion…”

It is a high-minded sounding phrase that is repeated often, ever since Karl Marx used it as the basis for much of his system, but which has been soundly refuted.

I couldn't imagine a more dramatic and straightforward phrase to obscure the distinction that Donny and "Teach" were ignorant of. Perhaps it is no wonder David Mamet has relinquished his more liberal tendencies.

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