a wooden nickel
February 15, 2010
Mamet is a cult. Mamet is not meant for everyone, and AMERICAN BUFFALO specifically, is meant for almost no one.
BUFFALO gets produced a lot. The “fuckin’ Ruthie” monologue, delivered by Teach in the opening act, is done to death in acting class. BUFFALO has been movie-ed, broadway-ed, televised and translated. It’s a regional theater mainstay. Everyone, it seems, wants to take a crack at it (or rather his crack at it).
But AMERICAN BUFFALO is a deceptively difficult play to present. Its dimensions are of grand opera, yet it’s scored for trio. With intricately layered degrees of impotence it spins out great looping dialogue of obvious and exaggerated punctuation that, in the right hands, can truly sing. (Mamet-speak, on the other hand, can be a character in and of itself, but it’s not one that I have any interest in.) When an actor truly engages with Mamet, like say, Jack Lemmon or William H. Macy or Robert Duval, you see right into their desperate flailing souls. Fuckin’ Ruthie.
Third Rail Rep’s performance space should be a terrific place to experience this play. It’s big enough that a full house can buzz the stage, yet intimate enough that subtlety and nuance are eminently readable from every seat in the house. Unfortunately, that intimacy undermines this BUFFALO. We’re far too aware of the technical ability on display that reads a bit tame, a bit vague, a bit obvious – an unsatisfying replacement for true connection. Brian Weaver is a smart actor playing a dumb character and it shows. He’s too clean, too focused, too pure; he’s thought himself out of existence. Tim True is miscast as Teach. At crucial moments he clowns, playing up the humor at his character’s expense and too much of his dialogue ends with a button. There’s no surprise, no volatility, no primal aggression/frustration/desperation. He’s technically very skilled, but fuckin’ Ruthie is his schtick when it should be his fuse, leaving his tantrum at the end of the play all sound and no fury. Bruce Burkhartsmeier comes closest with real heart and an almost desperate soul. Mamet’s dialogue lives in him and gives him an edge the other two lack. But one out of three will not bring this music to life.
And what’s up with the set? The gray nothingness at either side of the stage, if metaphorical, reads more like lack of imagination (not the metaphor you’d want for this production) and undermines the oppressive nature of Mamet’s language. And the space that is dressed is too expansive, too generic. It should be a bunker, a barricade against an outside world that’s a constant threat. Instead, it’s all up and open, a place where everyone can breathe and no one feels threatened. (And really, there’s far too much glass not to have at least some of it smashed when that baseball bat comes out swinging.)
Mamet, ironically, can be a very safe evening of theater. The language, though filled with expletives and cruelty, if not pitched perfectly, ends up keeping the audience at arms length. They leave with faux theater cred, having seen Mamet without getting kicked in the balls. And Mamet done right should be a kick in the balls: painful and unforgettable.