The Saline Selection: American Buffalo
When the fiercely intense and obscenity-ridden American Buffalo exploded onto the theatrical landscape in 1975, it immediately established the young playwright David Mamet as a new voice to be reckoned with on the American stage. Time has not diminished the power of this work, and in the excellent production at Theatre Exile, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, nothing feels dated. Perhaps that’s because this early Mamet play established the themes that would dominate most of what followed. Mamet is a master of taking a couple of guys who think they’re much smarter than they are, setting them up in some shady scheme to get rich, and then letting their greed undo them. The parallel between these small-time hoods and guys like Bernie Madoff is obvious.
American Buffalo refers to a Buffalo Nickel that rests in a coin collection that three disparate losers are planning to steal, a theft you know they will never have the sense to execute. But watching them delude themselves is half the fun.
The jack-hammer of the action is Teach, portrayed with barely-contained, paranoid rage by the superb Peter Pryor. “There’s business and there’s friendship and the rest is garbage,” he says, fancying himself adept at both, but not very good at either. His hapless partners in crime are Bobby, an addled young drug addict sympathetically performed by Robert DaPonte, and Donnie, a tough guy with heart given an almost kindly rendition by Joe Canuso. Donnie owns the junk shop where the guys play poker, and their scheme gets plotted. The marvelous set, a treasure trove of detritus like old bicycle parts, broken TVs, jelly jar glasses, used records, you name it, suggests the mess that America is in, as well as the sloppy lives of the characters.
What drives the play is less the plot than the power of Mamet’s pulsing, colorful language and his gift for manipulating words to bring people to life. That is more than enough to keep the audience riveted.