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Vol. LXIV, No. 11
 
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
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Music/Theater

AMERICAN SCHEMERS: Junkshop owner Don (Kurt Ehrmann, left) and his short-fused friend Teach (Tracy Letts) plot an ill-fated robbery in a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” (1975), playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 28.

Tracy Letts (not just a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright) Ignites David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” at McCarter

Donald Gilpin

Tracy Letts, Steppenwolf ensemble actor since 2002 and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize — and Tony Award-winning playwright for August: Osage County, commands the stage from his first angry, foul-mouthed entrance down the steep, narrow staircase into the junkshop early in the first act of David Mamet’s 1975 American Buffalo until his final subdued exit in the last minutes of the play.

At McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production through March 28, American Buffalo is a three-character tour de force, winner of Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle awards in its original staging and the play that first brought Mr. Mamet to national attention. Mr. Letts’ Teach is the most driven character in this character-driven drama, and one of the great dramatic creations of recent decades. Played by Robert Duvall in the first Broadway production, by Al Pacino in an early ’80s revival and by Dustin Hoffman in a 1996 movie — Teach looms larger than life here, in his polyester, his cheap belted leather jacket and multi-colored shirt unbuttoned to display a pallid chest beneath a Fu Manchu mustache, thick sideburns, and a balding, pony-tailed pate.

This character is a classic Mamet loser — not a real estate shark as in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross (1984 — successfully revived at McCarter in 2000), not a shady movie executive as in Speed-the-Plow (1988), but a self-described “businessman.” His business — aside from the petty crimes that he plots and presumably has executed in the past — seems to be delusion, self-aggrandizement, strutting his persona with a fierce, desperate paranoid energy that savors some of the best of Mamet’s famous poetry of vulgarity, disjointed thoughts, muddled logic, inarticulate purposes and dreams. At times ridiculous in blowhard absurdities, at times frightening in his intensity and dangerous anger, Mr. Letts’ red-faced, volatile Teach is never still — almost as if he’s afraid to confront the silence of what his life has become. He paces restlessly. He’s moving even when he’s sitting, as his leg bounces up and down. He talks non-stop, firing off the torrent of words — many of them four letters, and unprintable here — as if those words could construct a support for his world that threatens moment by moment to collapse around him. His more memorable bits of wisdom include: “The only way to teach these people is to kill them” and, as he instructs his two associates, “It’s kickass or kissass … and I’d be lying if I told you any different.”

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre on University Place in Princeton through March 28. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for information.

As the lights rise on Kevin Depinet’s basement junkshop set, the world of the play is laid out in immense detail. This is Don’s Resale Shop, and Don (a solid, focused Kurt Ehrmann), a less frenetic, less desperate foil to Teach, is ready for business, though no actual customer appears during the hour and forty-five minutes of the play. The basement setting is an appropriate parallel to the status of these characters — all on the lowest rung of society. It’s cluttered, dark and cramped — no small feat of design on the huge McCarter Matthews stage, which has been narrowed, framed with a black border and filled with every imaginable variety of junk, rows and rows of “merchandise” — everything imaginable from chandeliers to filing cabinets to a dead-pig sticker that becomes a key prop in the final scene.

American Buffalo is a story about American capitalism and what happens to human beings and their relationships in the quest for money. It is also a story about men and power and the idiosyncrasies of male behavior, as three outcast losers struggle to explain themselves and find meaning in the junkshop of their lives. It is a story of interdependence and betrayal.

Early in the first of two acts, Don reveals to Teach and Bob (Patrick Andrews), a young ex-junkie protégé, his business plan: stealing a coin collection, including a rare buffalo nickel, from a former customer’s house in the neighborhood. Teach wants in, and the two older men decide to exclude Bob from the deal and instead enlist a seasoned colleague, Fletcher, who never appears. They agree to meet back at the junkshop late that night to execute their plan. The second act starts at the arranged meeting time that night.

Mr. Andrews and Mr. Ehrmann sometimes fade into the background in the presence of the dominant Teach, but both are convincing, interesting, multi-faceted characters — at times, particularly in a scene of reconciliation near the end, affectingly sympathetic.

Amy Morton, an ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company since 1997 with a wide range of directing and acting credits, has directed this production with skill, sensitivity, and a particularly sharp satiric edge in its portrayal of the excesses of male values and behavior. Through the character of Teach, especially, she displays here Steppenwolf’s trademark lack of restraint in its presentation of passionate emotion and physicality. She moves the action along rapidly from moment to moment and effectively brings out the humor, the harshness, and the poignancy of this sordid slice of life. Ms. Morton recently appeared in the film Up in the Air and in 2007-08 in Mr. Letts’ August: Osage County, for which she received a Tony nomination.

American Buffalo in some ways seems like a small play: only three, inconsequential characters; lots of talk but very little action — the planned burglary fizzles; and even Mamet’s realistic, crackling dialogue no longer dazzles with the brilliance and shock value it had thirty years ago. As a searing satire, however, on the American Dream and the deluded dreamers who pursue it, the play resonates powerfully in the context of so many recent events in the business news.

American Buffalo,” as David Mamet told the London Times in 1978, “is about an essential part of American consciousness, which is the ability to suspend an ethical sense and adopt in its stead a popular accepted mythology and use that to assuage your conscience like everyone else is doing.”

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