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.

7 Responses to “a wooden nickel”

  1. Alan Schwanke said

    Dear Dirtybombpdx,

    I read your initial commentary about a week and a half ago when the show first opened and just found it again on the Willamette Week website. The link was left by someone in the comments section.
    I must admit that I was quite frustrated with your critical evaluation of the show and less importantly, the design. I am not going to try and argue opinions with you or try to defend my point of view as the scenic designer for the show. I stand by my work and by the decisions we, as a team, made. But I would ask you if you had seen other shows in that space and whether or not you recognized the amount of scenery that was present in those shows. Of course I understand that a show can only be evaluated under its own current standing and that you can’t judge anything based on its predecessors. However, this is the first time Third Rail has really done a show that was this fully fleshed out in terms of thought, execution and actual material.

    “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.”

    Commenting on parts of the theatre that we are not at liberty to alter just doesn’t seem helpful and taking jabs at people’s work for the sake of making yourself sound more intelligent (lack of imagination) really makes you sound less credible. I know that you are just a blogger and that in the grand scheme of things, this little “article” doesn’t mean anything. People love the show and its recieved a great reception from an audience that doesn’t percieve itself as mamet officianados. So this comment may seem like its coming from a place of vanity, but I would contend that its actually coming from a place of self defense. Theatre shouldn’t be about slamming one another’s work. Its suppossed to be about supporting one another’s work. And when you write something that just seems like you’re stroking your own ego at the detriment of others, you’re not doing the job of a reviewer. Plus, reviewers have the integrity to include their own names when they write a review. Cowards write anonymously. (Sure, if I search through this dirtybombpdx site I might find your name there, but its not written near your opinion. Therefore, you’re a coward – nothing more than a eunuch in a harem).

    Alan Edward Schwanke
    Scenic Designer
    American Buffalo
    Third Rail Repertory

  2. Some other guy said

    “Eunuch in a harem” hahahahaha, OOOOOOH BUUURRRN. I bet you’ve been waiting to use that for months.

    “Its[sic] suppossed[sic] to be about supporting on another’s work.” Sorry sweetie, if you’re in theater for sugar kisses and trust falls then you won’t be around for long. Toughen up a little bit and try to remember that opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one.

  3. Alan Schwanke said

    You’re absolutely right. I do need to toughen up a bit. I let you get to me when I should have just shrugged it off. Even more, I knew it was probably a mistake to send that message while I was feeling so angry. Bt I did it anyway, naively hoping that the person on the recieving end would acknowledge what I was trying to say. (This is proably a mistake right now). However, I don’t think I’m wrong about the theatre community supporting one another. This isn’t hollywood or the film industry. What we do (and I am saying you and I, not just myself) is not suppossed to be about one-upping each other and trashing someone else’s work. And I firmly believe that’s one of the many reason’s “the followspot blog” didn’t survive. Its suppossed to be about telling stories and spreading ideas. Yeah, its gooey and mushy and naive, but I couldn’t stay in this business if there wasn’t some hope of that ideal being reached at some point. And if you’re not in theatre for that then what are you in it for?!!!! You sure as hell aren’t going to get rich doing this!
    “Sugar kisses” and “trust falls”. That’s pretty good. I’ll have to remember that.

    P.S. Actually “sweetie”, I have been waiting to use the “eunuch in a harem thing” for quite a while. The designer I used to work for told me that one. It just seemed like the perfect match for you. If you’ve got any better ones, please let me know so I can try those out as well.

    Alan Edward Schwanke

  4. Alan Schwanke said

    By the way, I still didn’t catch your name. What was it again?

  5. Alan Schwanke said

    And let me just clarify because I realise my reponse to “some other guy” was also aimed at Dirty Bomb PDX. I know some other guy didn’t write the article. My you’s kind of went all over the place. Oh well. I think the point I tried to make (in a very elongated way) still stands.

  6. Tommy said

    For what it’s worth, Alan, I actually really dug the set (it reminded me a lot of the late, great Fairly Honest Bill’s). In fact, I liked the production on the whole very much. I do agree with dirty bomb on a couple of points, though – and this has to do not with your work, but with the direction, and to some extent, True and Weaver’s treatment of their respective characters – the first of which is that the final scene, or rather second to final scene, did fall a bit flat. Not for any lack of violent energy, to be sure, but it seemed as though the intensity built a little too quickly in the second act. It sort of flared up right off the bat, where I think the material calls for more of a frustrated and confused slow burn, a smoldering place from which the outburst toward the end can truly detonate. Which brings me to True and Weaver. True, while not necessarily miscast, did go for it a bit. He played the edginess and comedic elements of Teach with an appropriate physicality, but a little restraint would have put a better punctuation mark on his performance. And Weaver just kind of really didn’t do if for me; he seemed to play Bobby as almost retarded, rather than merely dopey or naive. I found myself wondering what, say, Max Perlich or Leo Fitzpatrick would do with the role. So here again, I agree with db. Burkhartsmeier brought, by far, the most subtlety and nuance to the work, which perhaps makes a good deal of sense, given that his character is the oldest, and presumably wisest, of the three.

    That said, I offer up these thoughts with a caveat: as SOG mentioned, opinions are like assholes, and mine stink no less than anybody else’s. All in all, a very good show. It… Was… Much… Much… Better… Than… Cats…

  7. Alan Schwanke said

    Tommy,

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. They were fair and balanced and well written. Good call on the second to final scene.

    Alan

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