ARTS

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January 8, 2010

With Steppenwolf's Buffalo, don't expect to get nickeled and dimed

It’s a familiar trope: According to Chekhov, if a gun is present in the first act, it had better go off by the last. Also cliché: David Mamet is an angry man, or at least his plays are. But these conventions don’t diminish Steppenwolf’s production of Mamet’s American Buffalo for its winter season. Set on the North Side of Chicago nearly 40 years ago, Buffalo is at once a meditation on masculinity and the relationships between men, and a social commentary on changing times for (white) men in the ’70s.

The “American Buffalo” of the title refers to the buffalo nickel, a rare coin that is the driving force behind this play’s action. It’s sold from a junk shop for a price far below its value at the beginning of the play. After learning of their oversight, the three men who work in the junk shop—the elderly owner, Don Dubrow (Francis Guinan), Don’s friend Teach (Tracy Letts), and their young and impressionable tagalong, Bobby (Patrick Andrews)—conspire to steal the nickel back. What transpires is part revenge, part convolution, but fully filled with rage.

It’s no surprise then that brutality and violence hold a certain sway in the play. Perhaps this is simply due to the nature of masculine relationships, as shown by the characters’ vulgarity and anger. But the cast’s distinguished performances certainly contribute to this aura. Letts is absolutely mesmerizing. A recent Pulitzer- and Tony-winner for his performance August: Osage County, Letts constructs Teach as a self-aggrandizing, boorish, misogynistic, and angry poet laureate of street smarts. The effect is such that every time Letts steps on stage, clothed in rayon pants and a thin leather jacket, I expected someone to get schooled, so to speak.

But American Buffalo isn’t merely a vehicle for Letts’ extreme performance. It’s a credit to the production that Guinan is able to shine as well. Guinan, also an alum of August, puts forth a Don that is eager for venegeance, but also compassionate in the face of real violence. His presence suggests something halfway between stubbornness and the respectable gravitas of old age. Maybe the only real question is Andrews. He is not at all a poor actor, but his deliberately gruff monotone and ponderous line delivery had some audience members questioning after the play whether Bobby was at all mentally “slow.” That said, Bobby is still compelling because of the contrast he lends as the “son” of this junk shop, a side of his character that Andrews gets very right.

Steppenwolf chose to produce Buffalo under the winter season’s theme of “belief,” a conceit that seems counterintuitive, but throws light on a possible interpretation of Mamet’s play. In one way, what do the characters believe about the coin? Just that they’ve been cheated. In fact, there is a scene where Don picks up a book of coin values and the question is directly asked: How much is the nickel worth? But between blustering and arguing, the book is never opened, suggesting the seller of the coin has no idea if the nickel was worth the trouble of planning a robbery, or the destruction that it causes.

More importantly, what do the characters believe about themselves? The elders obviously take advantage of Bobby, but he still aims to please them. Don, believing he’s been cheated, is at odds with the audience, who can never quite muster up sympathy for him. We ache, we beg for him to open the damned book of coin values, and, almost sadistically, Mamet moves breezily along.

As for Teach, just look at the name. He is a character who finds himself a teacher, smarter than the others even if he is not. He is equal parts dispenser of bogus knowledge and absolute fire of superiority. And he’s the macho man who puts the gun (hint, hint) in his pocket. Then there’s the fact that these men are living in the ’70s, just when the degree of domination of white men is being reduced. How big, how manly do these men think they are? All in all, Mamet’s play shows wonderfully what it means to believe something of oneself, to act upon that belief, and the consequences of such actions.

To conclude: guns. I told a friend of mine before seeing the play that I hadn’t seen it before, to which his reply was, “Dude, it’s intense,” then later, as an afterthought, “intense.” Knowing that now, I can’t imagine the intensity of carrying a loaded gun in my pocket on my way to a robbery, but it is an intensity Teach knows. And an intensity the audience will come to know. All I’m saying is try your best to peek through your covered eyes during the final act. It’s worth the price of admission alone.