First, a disclaimer: Stephen Malloy, who directs and designed this Equity Co-op production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo is a colleague of mine in the Theatre program at UBC. A second disclaimer is probably also in order: I’m an unabashed (but not uncritical) fan of Ryan Beil, one of the three actors. So I guess I’m not entirely objective. That said, this is a terrific production of a modern American classic and a really fun theatrical experience.
Much of the fun comes from the venue itself and the ways Malloy employs it. Little Mountain Studio is a pretentious name for a crappy little storefront a few steps off Main Street crammed with 50 seats. What’s left for the actors is about an 8 by 8 foot square of playing space. Packed with assorted junk on the shelves, the wall and the floor, it becomes Don Dubrow’s second-hand shop with a couple of feet of clearance to the audience. The door through which the characters enter and exit the shop is the actual outside door, so that on opening night the actors came in wet from real rain. The tiny washroom we see a character dip into to check his hair in the mirror is the same one the audience uses during intermission. Lighting is provided by ceiling lights the stage manager switches on at the beginning of each act. This is about as unpretentious as theatre gets.
The plot gives us Mamet’s view of American capitalism at its most basic on the mean streets of Chicago. Donny (Josh Drebit) has sold some guy a buffalo-head nickel for $90 from his shop, and is convinced for no apparent reason that the guy 1) has ripped him off, and 2) has a valuable coin collection. So he plans to steal it, using simple-minded Bobby (Daryl King) as his b&e man. But when local self-styled hot shot Teach (Ryan Beil) gets wind of the scheme, he takes over. For him the caper is all about “business,” “free enterprise.” He verbally bullies Don into replacing Bobby with him, and comes up with a hare-brained half-assed scheme that’s five parts bullshit, four parts paranoia, and one part fantasy. There’s some small-scale gratuitous violence before it all comes to nothing.
Mamet has mastered a certain kind of telegraphic dialogue that his characters use to mask their ignorance. It’s all bluff, laced with obscenities and answered by other characters with something similar. So no one ever really says anything, and everyone else agrees. It’s the worst possible language for coordinating a plan, even if the characters had the knowledge or intelligence on which to base one. It makes for some very funny exchanges, though it also frames the sick, self-defeating ethic they’ve adopted of macho egotism and self-justifying greed.
Malloy’s direction is as unadorned as the set, and the actors do a nice job of avoiding overplaying or caricaturing Mamet’s urban cowboys. Drebit’s Don, the solid, stolid centre of the story, makes clear his fundamental insecurity by buying into Teach’s ludicrous plan. Beil uses his marvellous comic gift to great effect as the blustering Teach, but plays it mostly straight as he must for a character who takes his sad-sack self absolutely seriously. Daryl King’s Bob is superb, the innocent kid who so wants to be one of the Men, as he must imagine them. It’s a pleasure watching these guys work at such close quarters, watching them making Mamet’s warped world feel so real.
Though a lesser play than Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which this same group did so well in the same space last year, American Buffalo is a great theatrical pleasure. Can’t wait to see what treat these guys will have in store for us next time.