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American Buffalo Chicago

In the American Theatre company production under the direction of Mike Nussbaum and Brian Russell, Donny is the play's center, and John Mohrlein, under their direction, brings to the role a much different interpretation than the Broadway production's. Its conception of Donny is this Chicago production's major weakness.

AMERICAN BUFFALO

By David Mamet.

American Theater Company, Chicago. 16 December 1999.

 

Nearly a quarter century after its original premieres in Chicago on Stage Two at the Goodman Theater and then for a longer run at St. Nicholas Theater, David Mamet’s American Buffalo returned to Chicago in a production co-directed by Mike Nussbaum who played Teach in the 1975 St. Nicholas production and Brian Russell, the Artistic Director. A member of Mamet’s Mafia, Nussbaum would seem to be uniquely situated to re-explore this American classic. This revival produced some intriguing insights: yet it was also disappointing on a number of levels.

I saw the 1977 New York production with Robert Duvall, John Savage, and the late Kenneth McMillan. What struck me immediately was the language and Mamet’s extraordinary musical ear for the poetry of the street. What I appreciated then was drama as a form of chamber music, thrillingly played by three virtuosi who complemented each other’s rhythms.

The story is well known by now. The roles of Teach and Bobby are the more flamboyant, offering the actors a great deal of room in which to work out their objectives. In the 1977 production, Duvall’s Teach was a growling bulldog sniffing for a bone. In marked contrast, John Sterchi, in this revival, plays Teach more as a weasel, alert to the dangerous world around him, yet needing to fasten on to whatever may have been overlooked. Donny, like Teach, wants to be considered a businessman, and, as both men continually wrap their language in the slogans of business, we finally see them as little men reaching well beyond their capabilities.

In contrast to the earlier production, in which John Savage’s Bobby was perennially spaced-out, Andrew Micheli’s Bobby however was tightly wired and precariously on the edge, seemingly ready to hurl himself back into the oblivion of his earlier drugged existence. In each act. Bobby requests fifty dollars from Donny and, importantly, we do not learn until the end of the play that he wants the money not to return to his former life but to buy a gift of love and apology for Donny. Savage’s dopey haze layered a sweetness over Bobby that made him a sympathetic innocent, especially during Teach’s assault. But Micheli’s being so strung-out emphasizes Bobby’s neediness, underscoring the pivotal wayward son-forgiving father relationship between him and Donny.

Donny is the play’s center, and John Mohrlein, under directors Nussbaum and Russell, brings to the role a much different interpretation than the Broadway production’s. Its conception of Donny is this Chicago production’s major weakness. Donny plays surrogate parent to Bobby and originates the robbery scheme. His forgiveness is essential to both Bobby and Teach. Scott Cooper’s wonderful set emphasizes that his life is surrounded and defined by junk, of which the least seemingly possesses the greatest value: the nickel, the junkie, the small-time hustler. The role of Donny would appear to offer less freedom of individual interpretation, for actors often appeal to play straight man to the confused Bobby and the volatile Teach. But it is Donny’s near betrayal of Bobby in the name of business and the forgiveness that Donny both offers Bobby and asks for himself at the play’s end that remain at the heart of the drama.

Mohrlein, resembling an aging hippie in a ponytail, keeps Donny too relaxed, too amiable and. as a result, the threat that he will cut Bobby loose is missing. At the play’s beginning, Donny attempts to instruct Bobby in the ways of the world, alerting him that business and friendship must be kept separate. Later in the first act, Teach talks Donny into scratching Bobby from the robbery team. When Bobby shows up unexpectedly in the second act as the robbery plans fall apart and violence fills the air of the shop, the threat of Donny’s betrayal must be palpable: but, due to Donny’s weakness in this production, it was sadly missing.

Still, the American Theater Company’s revival found much of Mamet’s music, and its production, especially Jana Stauffer’s costumes, Rita Pietraszek’s lighting, and Lindsay Jones’s sound design, is to be commended. That Nussbaum and Russell softened the center of the triangle was a disappointment, but the production team’s hard edges rendered and reaffirmed the greatness of this early work.

STEVEN DEDALUS BURCH

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN - MADISON