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Review of American Buffalo

The Young Vic production in London

"AMERICAN BUFFALO*
> By David Mamet <br>This Review was emended 9/12/06 to reverse the names of actors playing leads.
><br> Young Vic Theatre, London. 22 March 1997. Upon entering the throbbing jazz-filled theatrical space where the Young Vic Theatre Company performed American Buffalo, audience members were only slightly removed from spectacular piles of “junk,” masterfully designed by Joanna Parker, with the vibrant sound design by John A. Leonard. Near me were stacks of record albums, including Love Story, with the memorable picture of Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neill on the cover; Chicago Cubs’s pennants and other ball club memorabilia, kitchen utensils, Siamese cat lamps, plastic pink flamingos, and a stack of 45s, with “Eso Es El Amor” on the top. In the thrust-style, basement setting of Don’s Resale Shop, seemingly from floor to ceiling the “fort” of junk overwhelmed the acting area — tons of paraphernalia, toys, household appliances, handyman tools, records gadgets, chairs, tables, party costumes, television sets — yet, every spectator was still able to see the characters in Mamet’s male-cast play interact. The set design invited the viewer to experience the lives of Donny, Teach, and Bobby voyeuristically. We saw them engage one another surrounded by junk—the discarded, the old, the unreliable, the quickly forgotten material goods that we use and toss out in a consumer-oriented capitalist culture. It took little time once the actors entered this space to recognize that their characters were desperately trying to find some meaning in their lives—however mundane or futureless that meaning might be—in order not to feel, not to (continue to) experience their lives on the brink of “extinction,” but perhaps more so, on the edge of becoming human junk. Donny, Teach, and Bobby spend their stage lives plotting to steal a coin from a neighbor, a coin which they believe to be extremely valuable. As the dialogue in the play revealed, the petty thieves talk on and on about the details of a heist that never happens. Talk about taking an action yet never taking the action reinforces the play’s claustrophobia. The men’s “home” in Donny’s Shop was a place of temporary human connection, but certainly not a place of action nor a place where action could successfully be thought through and executed. What remained was a discourse of half-articulated sentences, constant interruptions, and meaningless references—the men, in general, don’t stop talking. They incessantly attempt not to let themselves slip into the silence of the junk, for in such slippage obscurity, loneliness, and death await. Even amid the violence that occurred at the end of the play, certain allegiances are rededicated (most notably between Donny and Bobby), and the possibilities for male friendships based upon loyalty, trust, and known history are affirmed as just that, “possibilities.” As the embodied threat to such friendships, Teach, who was magnificently played by Douglas Henshell, exploded onto the stage whenever he appeared; cutting a slick figure with his very greasy hair and below the waist leather jacket, an impeccable American accent and a sense of Mamet’s rhythms (“Chicago con-artist” style), Teach stalked around the stage like a caged animal. His own anxious mannerisms served to keep the audience itself on an edgy alert; it was as though at any minute, he’d break through the fourth wall in his effort to find the neighbor who owned the desired coin collection in the audience. Likewise, Bobby, played extremely effectively by Neil Stuke, remained in a constant haze throughout the production, an appropriate choice for a recovering junkie. Stuke, who visually captured a boy-man look with his youthful face and muscular body, used his overall physical appearance — dressed in tight jeans and a green shirt with “Metuchen” blazed across the chest — as a counterpoint to Bobby’s wastedness, his complete vulnerability, and his lack of any personal care taking skills. Bobby, the man, was finally a very, very lost young boy. The center of the play’s action — or “talk” as “action” — is, to a great extent, determined by Donny. The others come to his shop as their base, and he is the one whose allegiance to Bobby is threatened as he willingly follows Teach’s path of “business” rather than his own impulse to respect “friendship” over business. Nicholas Woodeson, in the role of Donny, unfortunately did not match his colleagues in portraying a fully realized character. The role of Donny, according to Mamet himself, is of heroic, moral stature in the play. Pursued aggressively by Teach who desperately wants a main role in the heist, Donny alters his strategy to include Teach and exclude Bobby, and he does so, eventually, with great certainty. Mr. Henshall never quite commanded the stage presence demanded by his role. His occasional hesitating movements (within the confines of Donny’s own shop), were less obvious than the actor’s fluctuating accents. During Act I, in particular, a potpourri of “American” accents were heard from Donny: generic midwestern (yet rarely hitting the male cockiness and brashness, let alone nuances, of Chicago speech patterns), New York, and his most frequent choice, a Bostonian accent. Henshall hit the mark, however, in his resale shop owner’s “look,” outfitted in his tan bell bottoms, beige jacket, and plaid shirt. Furthermore, to Henshall’s credit, his performance became more confident—both physically and vocally—as the play progressed, which complemented the intentional shifts that Mamet has written into Act II’s talk and (violent) action. The Young Vic’s production, while hampered by some unclear acting choices, created an engaging, desperate world of petty thieves, struggling to understand the relationship between friendship and business. While clearly set in Chicago, the production suggested, a broader context within which to view the characters and to hear their story. These three men — with their desire for love and respect, but never quite able to get beyond their own distrust — existed in a stage world of men. And that specific world exists in infinite manifestations, including still others in Chicago and those beyond American borders. ROBERT VORLICKY<br/> New York University