American Buffalo at Capital Stage
To fully appreciate the terse, tense and frequently profane dialogue in David Mamet’s American Buffalo, recall that the play opened on Broadway in February 1977, just a few months after the release of the Watergate tapes, which featured President Richard Nixon and his senior aides saying “expletive deleted” in the Oval Office, again and again, as they contemplated ways to contain the scandal following the Watergate break-in. That made Mamet’s play, set in a seedy junk shop inhabited by strangely compelling lowlife characters all the more timely. Mamet’s characters are three guys who are also contemplating a robbery, except that they’re much too small-time to pull it off.
We have Donny (the paunchy, cautious, 40-something junk-shop manager, marvelously played by Peter Mohrmann), and his teenage “gopher” Bobby (well-etched by young actor Joseph Baldridge, a Sacramento State student). In walks “Teach,” a nervy, sleep-deprived, boastful loose cannon (Jonathan Rhys Williams, with a piercing gaze, wild arm gestures and pacing that suggests how close his character is to exploding).
And we’re off, with four-letter words flying.
The action’s triggered by a coin collector who visited the shop and bought a rare old buffalo-head nickel for what amounts to—at least for these three marginal, largely clueless losers—an incredible amount of money.
American Buffalo is a totally testosterone-driven “guy play.” Women are occasionally mentioned, but only derisively. Card games are discussed. But mostly, we see these three guys trying to be tough and maneuvering for control of the loot from the far-fetched robbery they’re planning, while sending out for coffee.
Director Janis Stevens builds up a surprising amount of tension, and uses the single set on the small stage to good effect. Everything takes place in the cluttered, claustrophobic junk shop, and the ratty old storefront looks like a time capsule out of the ’70s, right down to the rotary phone on the counter by the cash box.
The play doesn’t feel dated, and underneath all the rough verbal bluster, there’s a layer of caring that surfaces at the end, after the tension’s played out in a volcanic outburst. This play hasn’t been seen locally in many years, if ever. Kudos to Capital Stage for ending the neglect.