Originally broadcast on CJSF Radio, 1994.

American Buffalo

by David Mamet

A Fend Players presentation.
Directed by Paul Crepeau.
At the Station Street Arts Centre until November 26
930 Station Street, Vancouver, B.C.
Info: (604) 688-3312

Review by Michael Brockington

David Mamet is not a bulletproof playwright. Performed poorly, his dialogue limps along like a slow, sick dog. I've seen Mamet plays where the actors were embarrassed to have his words in their mouths, spitting them out like a bad taste.

 Done well, Mamet is a pit-bull: goofy looking and scary as hell. And the Fend Players production of American Buffalo does Mamet very well indeed.

 American Buffalo is a funny play. It doesn't overflow with jokes, but develops sustained humour from the rhythm of the dialogue, a rolling punch line that builds for an hour and a half. It's hard to nail down. Imagine someone who doesn't understand English listening to Lenny Bruce on a riff. They can't get the jokes, yet for some reason they fall over laughing. Delivery, pace, inflection, style carry the humour. And when the comedy dissolves into violence there's no safe emotional ground to retreat to.

 The play centres on three small-time crooks. How small? The object of their loopy schemes is a lowly nickel. A rare and valuable nickel -- maybe -- but still just a nickel. These guys are nickel-and-dimers, minus the dimes. But when you're far enough down penny-ante stakes are desperate stuff.

 Don (played by Alec Willows) runs a junk shop. Teach (Stephen Dimopoulos) is his thuggish friend, and Bobby (Benjamin Ratner) is a hype who runs errands for Don. Don and Teach are hyper-verbal lowlifes, if a bit dimwitted. Teach particularly is one of those people who has difficulty thinking unless he's talking, and an even harder time talking unless he's moving. Dimopoulos and Willows can rarely be caught acting; they inhabit these characters, live in their skins. Mamet's obscene poetry sparks in their mouths like firecrackers. Ratner's slo-mo junkie rhythms are a perfect counterpoint, the syncopating element that keeps the play's dynamics from going stale.

 American Buffalo operates on pure high-octane testosterone. Machismo is an insufficient word to describe it. We need a new noun: mametismo. Mamet builds his play out of male stereotypes: cards, banter, sexual bragging, rituals of business and violence. He goes far beyond easy mockery to unlock deeper levels of meaning and emotion that have made these things such enduring clichés.

 Women only exist off-stage in this play, as in much of Mamet's work. Don't expect equal opportunity here. At one point, Teach calls an off-stage character a "dyke cocksucker." It's a useful quote for a taste-test, and if you find that line as funny as I do, you should definitely see this production. Yes, Mamet is a very male-oriented playwright, but he makes a virtue of his chauvinism by tearing apart his male characters with unfailing honesty and affection. Even when these people act like amoral monsters, they are never allowed to be other than human, never beyond understanding.

 The American buffalo is an archetypal symbol of profit pursued to extinction. The conflicts in the play -- friendship and business, loyalty and greed -- are easily scaled up to read as a parable of American business practice. But these are afterthoughts -- the performance allows no space for such frills. It drags you into the moment and doesn't let you pull away. The play is a sensual experience; analysis can wait until later. 

Mamet is a naturalist, and the wonder of his work is the words can sound so true and still be so entertaining. Credit goes to Paul Crepeau for carrying the naturalism through, even though that choice can only have the effect of disguising his work as director. The set is detailed down to the insulating newspaper stuffed between the cut-away walls of the shop, while the lighting is restrained, with the lights themselves hidden in the clutter of junk hanging from the ceiling. The intimate seating at Station Street permits the actors -- Ratner in particular -- to work at a scale that is sometimes remarkably subtle. This absence of theatrical overkill creates a truly absorbing production.

 A last happy coincidence is the Station Street theatre itself, located just outside the downscale downtown heart of Vancouver. The junkshop set could open for business and fit in seamlessly with the rest of the neighbourhood. You can even go across the street after the show for a beer with the bikers at the Old American Hotel. Just don't expect them to be as real as the actors on stage.

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