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ACT brings new life to a well-trodden script

Wednesday, Feb 5 2003
American Buffalo is one of the most produced and least understood great American plays. It's fiendishly hard to get right. The story of two men and a boy cooking up a scheme in Donny Dubrow's Chicago junk shop is simple enough for any small company to put on in a basement -- so simple, in fact, that it seems like a waste of the American Conservatory Theater's vast resources to stage it as part of its main season. The action keeps to the shop, so there's no need for elaborate self-changing scenery, and how hard is it, anyway, to mock up a store full of junk? A bunch of stuff from your father's garage can clutter the shelves at least as well as any set designer's props.

Mamet did write the play to be portable, but ACT proves in this new production how far a good designer and a talented cast will carry the script.

Donny Dubrow and Teach are a couple of working-class hustlers who hang around the junk shop and complain about customers and ex-girlfriends while a young former junkie named Bob runs their errands for petty cash. They all obsess about money: how much they lost at poker, how much to give or loan Bob, what they could earn doing something else. Teach doesn't seem to have a job, so when he catches Donny and Bob planning a "shot" to steal a collection of buffalo-head nickels from some wealthy chump, he shoulders Bob aside and deals himself a piece of the action.

Most critics point out that American Buffalo shows petty crooks behaving with the ruthless bluster of Wall Street financiers. "That's what business is," says Don. "What?" says Bob. "People taking care of themselves. ... There's lotsa people on this street, Bob, they want this and they want that. Do anything to get it." Teach and Don spout the same self-justifications for stepping on the other guy as Michael Milken or Kenneth Lay. The difference is that their chopped, half-articulate talk would sound coarse and rude at an Enron Christmas party.

If the play were just social protest, though, it wouldn't have survived the 1970s. It still works as a sturdy little tragedy because of Teach's hubris. His head is so dizzy with dreams of wealth that he never seems to notice he has no idea what a buffalo-head nickel is, much less how to steal one from a stranger's house. His temper rises over nothing at all, long before the scheme has a chance to succeed or fail, and when it fails, the crash is no less dramatic (if smaller) than Enron's. So what if Aristotle said tragedy had to concern large, significant people with a long way to fall? Writers in the 20th century -- Mamet among them -- proved him wrong.

Marco Barricelli plays Teach as a strutting weasel in a suede coat, a handlebar mustache, and wet-looking hair. He's a snake and a bully, full of paranoid innuendo and overblown speeches that on Barricelli's tongue sound almost like arias. "You take those fuckers in the concentration camps," he says in a typical non sequitur. "You think they went there by choice? They were dragged there, kicking and screaming" -- and no one knows what to say. Below the jerk persona Barricelli also finds a layer of childishness that makes Teach pathetic and sad.

The usual rule with Mamet is that his inarticulate, hollow dialogue allows exactly one reading for actors: Miss the voice and tone, and you end up with sludge. Barricelli and his co-stars not only nail the voice and tone, but also add flourishes: I've never seen Teach played with so much flamboyance, and Damon Seawell performs the role of Bob with a mischievous, boyish energy. Both men are easy to play in a sullen monotone -- since Mamet wrote them that way -- but director Richard White has pushed for something else. Matt DeCaro, too, is more than just a mound of flesh as Donny Dubrow; he's a cantankerous, roly-poly small-business man who runs at the mouth like Archie Bunker.

Kent Dorsey's excellent set also adds color: Among the usual racks of clothes and shelves of small appliances he inserts an unexplained mannequin with a bright red dress, an old electric guitar, and dirty windows for lighting designer Peter Maradudin's cold sunlight to filter through.

The only disappointing thing about American Buffalo for ACT is that it's such an obvious play to put on. The company has made a lot of ordinary choices in the past two years -- The Glass Menagerie, Buried Child -- as if the canon of overperformed American plays somehow needed reviving. American Buffalo should cap that project. It proves, even if the other shows didn't, that ACT can bring new life to a well-trodden script. Now it's time for something else, right?


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