BWW Reviews: The MET's American Buffalo: Worth An Antique Nickel
About 35 years ago, there arose a new movement on stage and screen that I’ve privately always called American Fauvists, not so much in honor of that early 20th Century band of French painters as of what their name portended: a calculated savagery. The people I call American Fauvists set out to portray savagery as they encountered it in the contemporary scene: characters who were economically marginalized --- even if on occasion they appeared to be securely positioned in big corporations, characters who were highly articulate but unlearned, and given in consequence to colorful obscenity and elaborate threats, characters who were not truly civilized, not truly humane, unable to treat their fellows empathetically or honestly, and given to violence. Auteurs presenting us with these stunted souls included Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarrantino, Neil LaBute and David Mamet.
One of Mamet’s early efforts in this vein, American Buffalo (1975), is now in revival at Maryland Ensemble Theatre (aka the MET) in Frederick. Its three characters are so inconsiderable they prove unable to execute a heist; indeed it is revealed by the end that the window of opportunity they had thought existed for them to pull of their “job” never actually opened – may have never actually existed, in fact – and the double-cross that had so alarmed them was only a figment of their imaginations. In both their schemes and their apprehensions, they have been completely off-base. The play is thus a sort of Waiting for Godot of heist comedies.
But in their inconsiderableness, the three characters, Don (Tad Janes), Teach (Jeff Keilholtz), and Bobby (Clayton Myers), generate a rich froth of pungent dialogue (phrases like “in the event something inevitable occurs”), violence, and angst. The fun of the play is in watching them scheme and fight and insult each other, which, in retrospect is not only what the play is truly about but all that turns out to have happened by the time of the final blackout. This may seem a peculiar way for an audience to pass a couple of hours, but it is actually quite a rewarding one. We’ve gotten to know nothing about stealing coins (the title refers to a rare and valuable nickel), but we’ve certainly gotten to know them, in all their florid shallowness.
Being so far out of town, the MET may not be familiar to Baltimore theatergoers, but they ought to make its acquaintance. It is a very professional troupe in an intimate space. Their performance space is not theater in the round, exactly, like Baltimore’s Spotlighters’ stage, but describable as theater in the semicircle, and about as up-close as the Spotlighters. That lack of distance can be disconcerting to an audience if the performances are, let us say, of community theater quality. Where, as here, they are something more, the proximity draws you in, and makes you excited to be part of the action. If there are no blemishes to see or be embarrassed by, you don’t mind being right there.
This cast is blemish-free. As Don, the proprietor of a store selling used antique knickknacks, Tad Janes exudes profane, aggressive authority that seldom wavers. Clayton Myers’ Bobby, the youngest of the crew, vulnerable partly because of an obvious heroin problem, but also unreliable for the same reason, calls for an unusual blend of innocence and shiftiness, and Myers makes a fine untrustworthy puppydog. Jeff Keilholtz’s Teach is delivered with consistent believability: all tightly coiled venom, probably psychopathic but just possibly redeemed by the code of personal loyalty he espouses. He also keeps us off-balance with surprising comical bursts of falsetto.
I’m leery, as Director Peter Wray is not, judging by his notes in the program, of drawing any moral from this tale of losers passing the time. Wray quotes someone talking about the “ethos of Big Business” and its effects “upon the human soul.” I see little evidence here of the presence or impact of Big Business; these are small-timers, and what makes their souls as small as their business, I think, is America itself, a place where there is no state religion nor any religion or code of ethics at all which anyone is required to internalize. Here you are free to be a scheming psychopath while talking a blue streak; no one will stop you. And while Mamet is clearly pointing out how amusing people who do this can be, I do not see much evidence he thinks we can learn much from them; the encounter is all. Fortunately, it is enough.
Wray’s apparent shortcomings as a critic, however, do not affect the clear-sighted way he delivers Mamet’s vision, or his comedy.
American Buffalo, by David Mamet, directed by Peter Wray. At Maryland Ensemble Theatre, 31 W. Patrick St., Frederick, MD 21701, 301-694-4744, www.marylandensemble.org. Tickets $24. Pervasive adultlanguage, violence. Not suitable for children.