Monday, February 22, 2010

American Buffalo Roams at Palm Beach Dramaworks

The first time I saw “American Buffalo” I scratched my head in confusion and wondered what it was all about.

With the Palm Beach Dramaworks revival of David Mamet’s ground-breaking serio-comic 1976 play, I finally get it.

“American Buffalo” satirizes the work ethic and America’s free enterprise system. Mamet would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for an even more damning piece, “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

With the economic meltdown of the past couple years I have often felt I am stuck in a David Mamet play, surrounded by desperate, treacherous characters.

The three characters of “American Buffalo’ are the dregs of society.

Donny Dubrow (Dennis Creaghan) runs a ramshackle junk shop in Chicago’s inner city.

Bobby (Matthew Mueller) is a flunky and errand boy to Donny, who he sees as a mentor and almost father figure.

Teach, aka Walter Cole (John Leonard Thomson) is a hot-headed petty criminal with a chip on his shoulder.

“American Buffalo” begins and ends with an apology from Bobby. He has failed in his mission to case the house of a coin collector who Donny suspects has a cache of treasures ripe for the picking. In his convoluted logic, Donny feels justified in stealing from a man who paid $90 for a buffalo nickel he discovered in Donny’s shop. Donny feels the nickel was worth far more, and so he was “robbed.”

As a coin collector I was initially confused as to the premise of “American Buffalo.” If Mamet had wanted a really valuable nickel he would have chosen a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, of which there are only five examples, worth millions.

Mamet is not talking about monetary value, I now see. These blundering crooks never even check the date or determine the coin’s condition. They just think it is valuable in the same misguided way they think they are doing a job, guided by the highest principles.

We the audience see these characters as the self-deluded fools they are, and therefore we can laugh at them- and laugh out loud.

Under William Hayes’ direction “American Buffalo” is a funny play with masterful timing by the actors. The characters speak in what has become known as “Mamet-speak.” They interrupt each other. Sentences trail off to be finished by someone else. The real subject matter is cryptic. It’s “the thing,” you know what we are talking about.

When I complimented Dennis Creaghan on his performance as Donny, he acknowledged the role is “a bear.” Creaghan affects a rough New York accent and the blustery manner of an insecure man who has doubts as to his true worth.

Matthew Mueller’s Bobby is at the other end of the scale: dim, meek, submissive, desperately seeking approval.

The showboat role is John Leonard Thompson’s Teach, a man who twitches and seethes with barely-contained rage. Thompson makes his entrance already in a fury about some woman named Ruthie and a guy he despises named Fletcher.

Thomson is fascinating to watch. We know he will blow up. We just aren’t sure when.

The Palm Beach Dramaworks audience is sophisticated and knowledgeable enough to know this play is peppered with rough, profane, offensive language. Sadly, this is how real people often speak; especially those who are down and out.

So if Mamet is your cup of poison, you will find this a potent brew, onstage through April 4 at 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach.

Tickets are $42 matinees and $44 evenings. Call 561-514-4042 or visit

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