(note, since this is not a review for OC Weekly, dear readers must realize that it’s not edited and may have a tendency to ramble; also, if a theater wants to cite any mention of this, it should be credited to Fermented Beers, not OC Weekly).
David Mamet is a dick. A know-it-all, cock-swaggering, expert-in-all-things fucking blowhard. He’s written books pillorying the Stanislavsky and method-schools of acting; he’s written books about his conversion from “brain-dead” liberal into asshole neo-con; he’s written books blasting Jews for turning their backs on religion and the nation of Israel.
He might actually have wonderful, insightful things to say but, since he’s a dick, why give him a thorough listen?
That dickness, in a large degree, stems from his own heightened sense of masculinity. In the esteemed theater critic/director/playwright Charles Marowitz’ words, Mamet comes across as a man “who, I suspect, has a pretty hairy chest. He comes from Chicago, which was the hometown of other tough guys like Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran. Judging by his writing style, I would think he’s pretty well-hung. Certainly, he thinks so, and his demeanor seems to suggest that testosterone was as mother’s milk to him. I’d hate to tangle with him mano y mano; he’d probably level me with one blow and then, to drive home the point, kick me in the nuts. He’s one tough “mother.”
But he’s also one hell of an excellent playwright (or, at least, used to be, before the seductive sirens of Hollywood lured him into the realm of film.) He doesn’t tell great stories, offer much in the way of metaphor, and, in terms of creative vision he’s a blip on the radar compared to his main contemporary in the 1970s and early 1980s, Sam Shepard (who also left the stage, for the most part, to make a buck or few in Hollywood).
Mamet’s gift lies not in structure, character, plot or lofty, sophisticated poetry. It’s in dialogue. The characters in his early, greatest plays, like Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, are not poets or preachers; they’re very real, coarse, brutally honest people who never miss an opportunity to drop a fuck/cunt/cocksucker into a conversation.
Of course, there’s more—a great deal more—to Mamet’s plays than just the foul words. It’s the rhythm of that dialogue, the staccato bursts, the measured pauses, the ebbs and flows, the rapid-fire delivery and spaces in between the words, that makes his plays seem so electric, so effortless, so real. There’s a great deal more to his craft than initially meets the ear.
And, as one character says early on in American Buffalo, currently receiving a solid production at Stages Theatre in Fullerton, there’s a lot more going on than what seems to be happening on the surface.
American Buffalo, a 1975 play by Mamet, takes place in a junk store (i.e., pawn shop) in one of the more shit-hole areas of the city with broad shoulders that loves to work: Chicago.k. The three characters are low-level thieves. One, Donnie, the guy who runs the store, seems to have a little more going on upstairs, and in his soul, than his colleagues: Teach, a manically energetic low-level criminal, and Bobby, a timid junkie.
But they’re all interested in purloining the coin collection of a guy who recently bought a rare buffalo-head nickel from Donnie. Knowing the guy is an avid collector and probably has a lot more coins in his pad, Donnie and, at first, Bobby, hatch up a plan to rob his apartment. But Teach, not trusting Bobby’s criminal enterprise, basically kicks him out of the deal.
Many commentators have said over the years that American Buffalo is an indictment on Capitalism; Teach, in particular, extolls the virtues of free enterprise and wails on about how if everybody was just left alone to make their mark, we’d all be better off. That’s sounds like bonafide libertarian philosophy but the simple reality is that this champion of free enterprise is also an absolute crook, who is going to gain his profit through plundering some chump.
That might be a not-so-veiled knock on the hypocrisy of Capitalism on Mamet’s part—ultimately, profit always comes through exploiting other people in some fashion, —but American Buffalo really seems more concerned with themes of friendship, loyalty and masculinity borne out through the terse and coarse words of three members of the American underclass.
Focus on that word masculinity. Mamet has drawn enormous heat over the years from people who view him as misogynistic. And there is ample evidence of that. In American Buffalo alone, women are repeatedly called cunts and cock-suckers, a trend that surfaces in many of his plays. And the few times he actually writes a woman character, such as in Oleanna or Speed-the-Plow, they’re usually portrayed as pure sex objects, or manipulative and agenda-driven.
Mamet is locker-room, fishing trip theater, at least in terms of his testosterone-laden dialogue. And, in American Buffalo, it’s the character of Teach who most embodies that. While Danny (Mike Martin, in his typically multi-faceted dimensionality) is far more practical, level-headed and, usually, above the fray in terms of sexism, and Bobby (a very convincing and pained Adam Evans) seems emblematic of the weak-kneed male in his genuflection to the opposite sex (he’s really just a sweet-hearted kid trying to prove his mettle among rougher men) jib, Teach is awash in sexism, if not pure pathology. Bob Tully, perhaps the most intense actor on the Orange County storefront theater scene, knows that and mines Teach’s rough-hewn dialogue to rich effect. Yet, what makes Tully’s performance most exceptional is that there is a layer of insecurity and even downright politeness and reverence to his Teach. As vulgar, aggressive and downright homicidal as the gun-toting Teach may be, there’s an almost child-like need for acceptance that Tully convincingly portrays.
Note the word child-like. For, ultimately, that is what these characters most resemble: Kids, not in a candy store or on a playground, but in the far more rough-and-tumble mercenary jungle of adulthood, desperately trying to fit in with their peers, to prove themselves, to make their mark. There’s nothing of the sentimentalist in Mamet’s writing; but there is a keening ache that director Katie Chidester and her compelling cast manage to convey: that, each in his own way, each character is striving to gain respect from his fellow males. The fact they are all so far away from actually finding that imbues American Buffalo with a sense of tragedy that makes it compelling viewing.
And how about that fucking set? Designed by Fred Kinney and built and decorated by Jon Gaw, it is impressive to say the least. There used to be a legendary pawn shop a few blocks down from Stages on Harbor and Commonwealth, owned by an equally legendary guy—who had experience with guns in his own right (the rumor is he once shot his wife’s lawyer in the ass during divorce proceedings). Whatever the case, this set, filled from floor to ceiling with junk, works on two levels: It’s just a gas to see the loads of second-hand junk assembled; but also the apparent random chaos of the interior of this pawn shop is an interesting visual counterpoint to the search for order—in terms of their quest for respect and fitting in—that these characters vainly try to embark upon.
American Buffalo runs through Feb. 19 at Stages. http://www.stagesoc.org.