David Mamet’s classic 1975 play, American Buffalo, comes to the mid-Hudson Valley this weekend and the following one, with performances on both sides of the river: The Woodstock Players, a company whose productions have won acclaim since their inception in 2009, are performing Mamet’s mesmerizing drama at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck on Friday January 6th and Saturday 7th at 8 p.m., with a 3 pm matinée on Sunday January 8, and again in Woodstock at Byrdcliffe’s Kleinert/James Arts Center, which is hosting an evening performance at 7:30 pm on Saturday January 14th and a 3:00 matinée on Sunday 15th.
American Buffalo touches us with the sheer blinding inadequacy of the characters’ longings.
American Buffalo, Mamet’s first play, remains his most cohesive work, and his least forced. The setting, a struggling junk shop, evokes America, and life itself, in ways that no amount of penetrating speeches could achieve: ‘What’s this?’ one character asks of a mysterious object hanging on the wall. ‘That? It’s a thing they stick in dead pigs, keep the legs apart, let all the blood run out,’ comes the answer. The world in a nutshell.
The play tracks the planning of a robbery by a trio of urban lowlifes whose collective brainpower could not be confidently expected to order lunch, let alone burglarize a coin collector’s residence. Their stumbling, furious language is the play’s manifest glory, an argot which is at one and the same time the most vulgar dialog in Mamet’s canon (tender souls, be warned) and its most poetic achievement. Astonishingly, the entire play is composed in iambic verse, broken into sawn-off, rambling and syntactically bizarre utterances which on the page resemble pentameters about as much as a charging warthog resembles a springing gazelle. And yet: listen, and you will hear the dance inside the thunder.
the iamb, far from being a Shakespearean accessory, underlies spoken English and has found its way into written English by natural distillation
The exquisite care with which the characters’ speech has been pared into iambic rhythms reveals how much the iamb, far from being a Shakespearean accessory, underlies spoken English and has found its way into written English by natural distillation. (Compare the anapaests of the French Alexandrine with their progenitors in French word-formation.) English-speakers tend towards iambics, regardless of education. It’s in the language, both high-flown and profane. Mamet exposes and exploits this to the full, and in American Buffalo this fascination with how his characters speak occupies him so thoroughly that language itself anchors the play to reality: neither the interplay of ideas – rarely Mamet’s surest ground — nor a lurch into melodrama, another Mamet vice, distort the truth to life of Mamet’s first and most satisfying work.
Of his subsequent plays, Glengarry Glen Ross comes closest to the Chekhovian quality of American Buffalo, while the remainder of Mamet’s output more closely resembles Ibsen in its laboring towards a moralizing significance. In Glengarry Glen Ross the most memorable riffs belong to star realtor Ricky Roma, whose hypnotic sales pitches entrap their prey via confessional monologues. These mazy speeches, woven out of misogyny, self-abasement and visionary snatches of the all-empowering American Dream, derive from their originator: Walter ‘Teach’ Cole, the two-bit gangster manqu[E] who dominates American Buffalo and has provided both Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman with one of their meatiest roles, on stage and screen respectively. But where the realtors in Glengarry Glen Ross thrust into our faces the exploitativeness of their dreams of wealth, American Buffalo touches us with the sheer blinding inadequacy of the characters’ longings.
Don, the owner of the Resale junk shop, has sold a rare buffalo-head nickel for $90 — in 1975 a sizeable killing. But the sale brings him only a sense of shame that he has once more been outwitted by life: ‘He would of gone five times that!’ Don declares of the well-to-do purchaser who noticed the nickel in Don’s pile of cheap coins. Embarking on a plan to rob the purchaser of his supposed collection, all Don cares about is the symbolic revenge he will effect by recovering the nickel he sold: “No, I know, it’s only a fucking nickel,” Don insists to his exasperated partner in would-be crime, “but what I’m saying is I only want it back.” Life has defrauded him, left him beached in a treacherous world of thieves and gamblers, and although Don preaches the gospel of ‘friendship’ as a value – “or else the rest is garbage,” as Don warns his young ‘gofer,’ Bobby — that will save him from the slime of ‘business,’ Don finds himself facing a choice between loyalty and greed which tests his belief in friendship to its limits. Like Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo is a tale set among American males whose brutal values Mamet lays bare with a terrible, confessional vividness. Its climax is alone in Mamet’s work — (with the exception of the final scene of Edmund between the eponymous protagonist, frail and white, and his prison cellmate, buff and black, the embodiment of everything Edmund ever feared and hated, and now his gentle, paternal protector and sexual partner) — in granting us glimpses of sweetness in this barren spiritual jail. American Buffalo is the most touching, the most tender, and the most savage of Mamet’s plays, earning it a justified place as the most resonant American drama of the past 35 years.
The cast consists of Carey Harrison as Don Dubrow, owner of the titular coin and the junk shop, Alex Bennett as Bobby and, alternately, Lou Trapani and Thomas D Vernier as Walter “Teach” Cole. Direction is by Tracy Carney and set & costume designs are by Claire Lambe.
For reservations at The CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, please call 845 876‑3080 or go to the website: www.centerforperformingarts.org
For the Kleinert/James in Woodstock, call 845.901.2893 or e-mail: Thewoodstockplayers@gmail.com
NB: at the Kleinert/James, cash or checks only at the door please.