Years ago, an older woman described seeing American Buffalo to me as: "Horrible. These two men just argue with each other and swear through the whole play! And I didn't understand what was going on! It was very unpleasant."
For some reason, I imagine that response would have brought a glimmer to playwright David Mamet's eye in 1977, when the play premiered. The criticism is largely true. It's like a Samuel Beckett play where the characters are on crank and Viagra.
But maybe Mamet was trying to show us just how ugly America was in the '70s, and it clearly resonated with audiences at the time. The story spills out in a city junk shop. Owner Donny Dubrow hears from his stooge, Bob, that a coin collector possessing a valuable buffalo nickel has left town for the weekend. Donny hatches a plot to steal the coin, and his shit-talking buddy, "Teach," muscles in for a piece of the action. For two hours, they argue over just how it's all going to go down. Needless to say, it ends badly.
Buffalo is a favorite of small theater companies, and what likely accounts for the play's continuing success is that it's easy to stage, leaving the non-acting aspects of theater — the lighting, the sound design and other technical artifice — in the background. The minimalism gives actors a chance to really show what they can do. And the ambitious folks of the Abreact, who produced last year's sumptuous Sweeney Todd, are equally successful here in stripping away the smoke and mirrors and playing to live theater's strength: an immediate, visceral experience, like watching a couple argue in their living room.
Director Adam Barnowski's cast is stellar. As local theater-watchers know, actor Joel Mitchell can roar like King Lear, but here he's appealingly cast as the more sympathetic lout, Donny, who at least has a nurturing side. Though Mitchell gives a great performance, the real powerhouse is Charles Reynolds, who gesticulates his way through an earthy performance as the psychotic Teach. The cantankerous role takes Reynolds through every macho delusion imaginable, from "Everybody can get angry but me!" to "You brought this on yourself!" to "I hit him for his own good!" But the actor stays with it, and when the play reaches its awful climax, it's totally believable.
Also notable is the terrific physical acting Josh Campos puts into the relatively quiet kid character, Bob. As the golf-caddy zombie in last Halloween's Night of the Living Dead: The Musical, at the Majestic Theatre, Campos created the most disturbing character of the night with his spastic body movements. In Buffalo, as the dope-addled "kid," he's shifty, funny and entirely vulnerable.
Playwright Mamet seems content to leave us unsure about many of the play's hard realities, while giving actors the opportunity to bluster and shout. And these men know how to argue, with none more antagonistic than the despicable Teach, a character prone to such misogynistic, nonsensical outbursts as "Dyke cocksucker!"
At the base of it, it feels like people arguing about stuff they don't really know about, because arguing is the only way they know how to resolve things. And that may be Mamet's point for any "macho men" in the audience: That in a world of suspicion and distrust, perhaps the very things that make us good poker players or shrewd businessmen are the things that also make us argumentative, intimidating, downright shitty people. That said, for those with a slightly dark or twisted sense of humor, some moments of the play will be laugh-out-loud funny, despite the play's underlying menace.
Also, the two main actors have grown great 1970s facial hair just for the play, with Reynolds sporting a sleazy moustache-and-sideburns combo and Mitchell a full Verdi beard.
Though the drama is convincing, sometimes the blocking is a little weird, leaving actors with their backs toward some of the house. The set design is fittingly spare and authentic, but one questions the wisdom of using the theater entrance as the dramatic entrance, reserved during performances for actors only. In a theater where part of the fun is drinking a can of beer in your seat, perhaps asking patrons to "hold it" until intermission is unwise.
But when you do emerge from the theater, Zeitgeist's art-covered bar is the perfect place to grapple with what you've just seen, and try to figure it out for yourself.
Four shows left: Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., March 7-8 and 14-15, at the Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; call 313-247-5270 for information; $10.Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org