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American Buffalo in Atlanta

The premiere of American Buffalo on Broadway prompted an array of negative responses from the critics back in 1977. Despite much high praise for an intense script and vivid performances, most thought the play unsatisfying.


By David Mamet

Empty Gate

14th Street Playhouse, Atlanta

June 11th, 1994.

The premiere of American Buffalo on Broadway prompted an array of negative responses from the critics back in 1977. Despite much high praise for an intense script and vivid performances, most thought the play unsatisfying. Many complained that nothing happens in this story, which follows three smalltime hustlers' aborted plans to steal a valuable coin collection. Leonard Probst perhaps captured his colleagues' sentiments best: 'I kept waiting for all the symbolism to add up to something, but it didn't. The center of the play is missing."

In the years following these criticisms, many scholars have examined the play to discover a rich subtext beneath its surface where apparently nothing happens. Dramatic action drives this play, not plot. And the foundation for this action is family_the fractured family composed of Don, Teach, and Bobby. Their home away from home_their only real home_is Don's Resale Shop. Individually and collectively, their competitiveness, jealousy, loyalty, and betrayal motivate a complex of ever- shifting power struggles that, accentuated in performance, can illuminate the real meaning of American Buffalo.

Unfortunately, the creators of the Empty Gate production seemed generally oblivious to the personal power struggles that make the play captivating. Director Richard Kimmel opted for an overall breakneck-speed tempo that did little to serve the play. The pace was usually driven by Teach (Andrew Garman), whose first entrance felt like a tornado. Accompanied by Teach's wild ranting and raving against "friends" Grace and Ruthie, Garman's constant movement during his opening monologue set the tone for his entire performance. The problem: for all of Garman's enormous energy, his portrayal of Teach effectively maintained one monotonous note. Nuance was sacrificed for freneticism, and beneath it all, one quickly realized that this Teach had nothing going on.

Garman's Teach became a caricature of the goofy bungler who would never get it right. His toothy grin often evoked laughter, but just as often it seemed inappropriate to the character. Walter Cole's nickname is, after all, "Teach," yet Garman's version conveyed the impression of an aspiring novice to the con-game business rather than ring-leader. Garman seemed too young for the role, and his boyish interpretation of Teach practically obscured the play's dramatic action.

The dynamics of this distorted family are based on the conflicting desires of Teach and Bobby: to earn Don's respect and approval. Don emerges as the patriarchal figure of the trio, and throughout the play, Teach and Bobby vie for the position of his number-one son. Neil Alan as Don created the production's most powerful and intelligent performance. Alan developed an interesting combination of gruffness and gentleness in Don, and the actor clearly understand's Don's position as mentor to both of his mixed-up sons. Alan must also be credited for creating most of the production's quiet moments when the subtext was allowed to resonate_a welcome respite from Teach's constant blustering.

Bobby's loyalty to Don is an essential element of the play's competitive dynamic. Although Teach initially succeeds in convincing Don to exclude Bobby from the heist, he ultimately loses to Bobby when Bobby reveals that he bought another buffalo-head nickel from a coin shop "For Donny. Bobby commits a true selfless act, and this revelation solidifies his relationship with Don. Bobby's admission also sets up the play's climax in which Teach realizes he will never know the genuine affection that Don and Bob share.

Brian Kimmel portrayed Bobby as a rather oafish young man_which the play calls for to some degree. But again I believe the director allowed his actor to push too far into the realm of caricature. The script implies that Bobby, an ax-junkie, resorts to taking heroin again in the second act, but when we first meet him, Bobby is clean. Kimmel's Bobby appeared in a dazed stupor throughout the play, which did little to arouse audience empathy. In addition, the combination of Kimmel's Bobby and Garman's Teach undercut the play's climax I didn't care if Don booted both of them out of his shop forever.

"Forever" is the key word here. Perhaps many of those early critics bemoaned their belief that nothing happens in American Buffalo because its superficial treatment can leave the impression that we are witnessing nothing more than another day in the life of these petty criminals. The Empty Gate production has succeeded only in perpetuating that myth. In the play's final scene with all three characters on stage, Don nurses Bobby (who has been brutally hit in the head by Teach) while Teach hovers over them repeating drivel, still pathetically eager for Don's approval_and forgiveness. Don orders Teach to "Go and get your car," clearly focussing all of his attention on Bobby while dismissing Teach. This is not just a day in the life. As result of Teach's lies, paranoia, and brutality, his relationship with Don has been severed. Things between them will never be the same.

In the closing moments of the Empty Gate production, Teach left the stage with a shrug of his shoulders, oblivious to what he had lost. Meanwhile, Don sat crouched on the floor with Bobby in his arms. Very few members of the audience were able to see their faces as the reunited father and son shared mutual apologies. Too many of us were shut out from the production's most human moment. Perhaps that was the director's intention. He seemed to find very little humanity to be admired in Mamet's play.

author: N.J. STANLEY
Agnes Scott College