The four-letter words fly fast and furious in the Geffen Playhouse’s latest, American Buffalo, and though David Mamet’s 1977 Broadway debut remains unlikely to be a traditional theatergoer’s cup of tea, it’s hard to imagine a better cast, acted, directed, or designed revival of this 1977 groundbreaker than the one at the Geffen.

org_img_1365103921_L Set in a Chicago junk shop, American Buffalo introduces us to “resale shop” owner Don Dubrow (Bill Smitrovich), his young protégé Bob (Freddy Rodriguez), and Don’s poker buddy Walter Cole aka Teach (Ron Eldard), as the threesome go about plans to steal back a buffalo nickel Don has recently sold for what he now realizes was a woefully measly ninety dollars. Just who among the play’s three characters will take part in the heist, however, is anyone’s guess.

Playgoers unarmed with the above brief synopsis could well spent the first big chunk of American Buffalo attempting to figure all this out, since Mamet rarely makes things easy for an audience. Characters converse in sentence fragments, interrupt each other relentlessly, and avoid speaking in specifics to a frustrating degree. It is, therefore, up to each audience member to figure out for him or herself just who “the guy” is that the guys keep mentioning, or precisely what “thing” Don is talking about when he reminds Teach, “I’m paying you to do a thing, Teach,” or when Bob tells Don, “I’m wondering on the thing that maybe I could have a little bit up front.”

org_img_1365104376_L Mamet also sidetracks us with a series of extended riffs that seem, at least on the surface, to have little connection with Buffalo’s main plot lines, e.g. Teach’s rant about a friend named Ruthie, whose “Help yourself” he took the wrong way, or Bob and Don’s recollection of how someone named Fletcher “jewed Ruthie out of that pig iron,” or Teach’s angry complaint that last night’s poker game wasn’t a fair one, since the partner of one of the players was always “going to walk around,” the better to steal glances at her opponents’ cards.

Then there’s the language, not merely the “Mamet speak” we’ve come to associate with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (those sentence fragments and overlapping lines and distinctive rhythms) but the plethora of four-letter words that spew forth from characters mouths, so much so that a Time magazine reviewer posited that if Mamet were to “delete the most common four-letter Anglo-Saxonism from the script … his drama might last only one hour instead of two.”

org_img_1365104480_L Finally, when you come right down to it, Don, Bob, and Teach are far from the most likable men, meaning that at best, they are hard to sympathize with, let alone feel empathy for, and that at worst, spending time with them can end up a boring pain in the derriere, or would if American Buffalo weren’t, as a Mamet character might put it, so fucking hilarious.

It helps immensely that director Randall Arney and his stellar cast of actors are Mamet masters to the nth degree, and if even after two hours, Don, Bob, and Teach still haven’t won our hearts (and may likely never do so), Smitrovich, Rodriguez, and Eldard certainly have, or at least our highest esteem. Eldard’s loose cannon of a Teach proves a veritable force of nature, and never more so than when he finally lets the junk shop have it at play’s end. (Pity whoever has to put the set back together once the audience has exited.) Rodriguez makes Bob so compelling a bundle of ticks and nerves that one would expect to find a long list of stage credits in his program bio, rather than a résumé entirely made up of movie and TV roles, most notably that of Rico on Six Feet Under. Finally, there’s Smitrovich, who proves (at the risk of multiple metaphor-mixing) the dynamic paternal glue that anchors American Buffalo and gives it power and gravitas amidst its considerable comic mayhem.

org_img_1365103081_L Clive Barnes famously described American Buffalo’s original Broadway set as “an agglomeration of trash that must have taken a team of assistants months to acquire,” words which I will co-opt to describe Takeshi Kata’s extraordinarily junk-packed scenic design at the Geffen. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi aims a few dozen stark white spots down onto Kata’s set to make us feel that Don’s junk shop is lit only by the unforgiving florescent bulbs hanging from its ceiling. Costume designer Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko has given each character a just-right outfit to wear, with special snaps to Teach’s late ‘70s polyester. Finally, there’s the work of violence director Ned Mochel, whose job title alone suggests that American Buffalo will be no romp through the daisies.

Young Ji is production stage manager and Maggie Swing assistant stage manager. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa.

org_img_1365104037_L Frequent StageSceneLA readers will likely guess, and correctly so, that David Mamet’s first Broadway success is unlikely ever to make my list of favorite plays. Then again, if its characters were the kind of likable, sympathetic folk I’d enjoy having as friends, American Buffalo wouldn’t be Mamet, and Mamet is what the Geffen has promised and delivered in spades.

Although two hours is about as long as I’d ever like to spend with Don, Bob, and Teach, an evening with Smitrovich, Eldard, and Rodriguez is time well spent if only to watch these three very different, amazingly gifted actors set the Geffen stage ablaze.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
April 11, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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