Marco Barricelli as Teach and Damon Seawell as Bob
By David Mamet
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
2 February 2003
The ACT revival of American Buffalo, which provoked riotous laughter and palpable dismay from the enthralled audience, marvelously realized David Mamet’s award-winning tragicomedy. Kent Dorsey’s brilliant scenery, layers and layers of recycled junk, simultaneously reified the play’s indictment of the commodification of cultural artifacts (an almost inevitable byproduct of capitalism) and suggested the flotsam of a civilization almost mercifully in decline. The cast—Marco Barricelli as Teach, Matt DeCaro as Don Dubrow, and Damon Seawell as Bob—not only delivered nuanced performances of Mamet’s feckless con-men (who are, above all, desperately conning themselves) but also skillfully handled Mamet’s infamously challenging staccato dialogue and pregnant pauses. Directing this production was Richard E. T. White, winner of several Bay Area Theatre Critic’s Circle Awards and Drama-Logue Awards. His vision of American Buffalo blended uproarious antics with an apocalyptic revelation of a society surfeited by materialism, resulting in a breathtaking afternoon of theater.
Among White’s more impressive directorial interpretations of Mamet’s text was the emphasis placed upon the gun that Teach brings back to Don’s shop on the night of the heist. Within Mamet’s text, the gun is the source of momentary anxiety, but within White’s production, the gun enforced the play’s central themes. When Teach waved the revolver almost nonchalantly but still threateningly at Bob when interrogating him about Fletcher’s whereabouts, it suggested the potential violence underlying even the most innocuous gestures within Mamet’s dramatic world. When Don pointed the revolver at the back of Teach’s head, after Teach’s destruction of the shop, it signaled just how fragile civilization might be—intimating that even Don, despite his fatherly concern for Bob, may be among the “cavemen” of Teach’s diatribe. White also added a brief introductory scene in which Don, clearly exhausted, went through the motions of opening his shop as if he were condemned to an unending Greek punishment. His obvious physical exhaustion, moreover, suggested the exhaustion of values, morals, and beliefs at the center of Mamet’s play.
Marco Barricelli clearly delivered the production’s standout performance. His Teach was so delightfully devoid of self-awareness that the irony of his ranting against other characters (especially Ruthie and Fletcher) for their disloyalty and duplicity, while he cut out Bob, completely eluded him. Nevertheless, the physicality of Barricelli’s performance rendered the conniving thief strangely, but undeniably, sympathetic. His many overdramatic gestures—from waving his arms in frustration to stomping his feet in begrudging acceptance—conveyed Teach’s desperate need for Don’s approval. In effect, Barricelli evoked not only the childishness of Teach, which is obvious enough, but also the childlike need for acceptance ineach. At the same time, though, Barricelli’s restless energy as he stalked back and forth across the stage made Teach’s explosion into violence near the play’s end seem almost inevitable.
Matt DeCaro and Damon Seawell both wonderfully brought out the complexity of characters that fiercely defend their inner lives. DeCaro’s Don, priding himself on being a good businessman, was appropriately gruff and hardnosed in his dealings with others. Simultaneously, though, DeCaro conveyed the fragility of Don’s ego and the authenticity of his affection for Bob—two considerable liabilities in Mamet’s highly predatory business world. Seawell, in his performance of the hapless junkie desperate to be entrepreneur, may have made the most of the many pauses and silences written into Mamet’s dialogue. Seawell often let the silences linger awkwardly as he contorted his body or slapped at his head to suggest Bob’s confusion and helplessness amid the deception and scheming of Teach and Don. Seawell’s stumbling over garbage cans and into furniture, moreover, made the junkie as endearing as he was incompetent.
Overall, this production of American Buffalo was impressive from start to finish, seducing the ACT crowd with laughter only to stagger audience members with the play’s climactic violence. When Don and Teach accidentally dial the “right” telephone number in their efforts to ensure that the “mark” has actually left for the weekend, DeCaro’s and Barricelli’s classic double-take as they stared—dumbfounded—at the telephone elicited audience laughter that went on for nearly thirty seconds. But later, when Teach flew into a rage, assaulting Bob with the same telephone and then destroying Don’s shop, the audience gasped not only out of concern for Bob but also in outright panic that Barricelli would leap into the audience before playing out Teach’s outrage. What this revival of American Buffalo did, beyond simply confirm the genius of Mamet’s play, was evoke the classic Aristotelian catharsis within the ACT theatergoers, leaving them as emotionally exhausted as Barricelli was physically exhausted after his rampage . . . and undoubtedly happy to have survived it.
J. Chris Westgate
University of California Davis