American Buffalo, by David Mamet. Directed by Ross Haarstad. With Ruby Fury, George Sapio and Abel McSurely Bradshaw. At the Community School of Music & Arts.
With his Theatre Incognita director Ross Haarstad is stripping the theater down to its essentials and presenting in ad hoc places around Ithaca. Over the last two weekends audiences watched David Mamet's American Buffalo in a studio at the Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA). The action of the play takes place in a junk shop in Chicago. It takes some time to realize that there is even a set present; the objects on shelves and tables could be there for students learning to draw or paint still life.
The space is long and narrow, and Haarstad used all of it. At times the actors shout at each other down the length of the room, at which point the audience is much closer to the actors than they are to each other. The proximity of the actors and the minimalism of the stage set and lighting all contribute to an intimacy that exceeds that of the Kitchen Theatre. And when the play explodes into violence in the second act, you feel exposed and vulnerable. In dramatic terms, that is quite an achievement for Haarstad and his troupe.
R.M. Fury, whom some will have seen in Kitchen productions, is "Donnie," a junk shop dealer and criminal. Abel McSurely Bradshaw is "Bobby," a dim but sweet (perhaps) ex-heroin addict who works in the shop, and in whom Donnie tries - with a rough avuncularity - to inculcate some street smarts. George Sapio is "Teach," a neighborhood thug who is believes he is much smarter than he actually is.
Donnie has sold an "American buffalo" coin to a collector for $90, and suspects it is worth much more. He wants to break in to the man's house, steal his coin collection and sell it to someone else. Bobby has been charged with keeping an eye on the collector's movements and to inform Donnie when the "mark" appears to leave town.
As the first act opens Bobby is apologizing to Donnie for having lost track of the mark. "Are you mad at me?" he asks. Donnie claims that he is not, but proceeds to lecture him about "business." Donnie wants Bobby to have "the balls to arrive at his own conclusions" and assures him that the essence of business is "people takin' care of themselves."
It is this gospel of self-centeredness around which the play revolves. Bobby has no self. Donnie preaches self-centeredness, but in fact, puts Bobby's education before his own self-interest. Teach is the grotesque and demented face of self-interest; he bends all facts to bolster his self-image, regularly contradicting himself several times in course of a singe rant.
Mamet is famous for the rhythm of his characters' speech and the extremity of their profanity. Haarstad does not force his actors to speak in a stylized way to emphasize the cadence of their dialogue. Instead they are permitted to speak naturally and let the freshets of swearing gush like spring runoff. If you grew up with this kind of street talk, then the beauty of it will bring back the smell of asphalt, garbage and cigarette smoke. At CSMA the coarser segments evoked embarrassed titters from the audience.
Mamet's characters are all stupid, but Teach is cruel, Donnie is kind, and Bobby is a blank slate. The eponymous coin is a $50 piece that is worth nearly $1,000. Donnie purchases a reference book to find out the coin's true value, but there is no indication that either he or Teach ever actually reads the book. Throughout the play Mamet makes it clear that these are people who do not have the attention span to really finish thinking about anything, and this is what makes them losers.
Each actor employs repetitious behaviors to convey the almost animal nature of their character. Fury's Donnie is often slack-jawed and hunched over, and he belches in mid-sentence several times. Bradshaw's Bobby reflexively plays with the hair around his ear, scratches his beard and the inside of his elbow. Sapio's Teach often carries his arms bent at the elbow, his hands hanging limply, in a vaguely simian posture.
The role of Teach demands the widest emotional range. Sapio must go from being an absurdly laughable fool to portraying a potentially homicidal maniac. In the laughable segments he recalled a vastly more vile Woody Allen or George Costanza. In one gag involving making a phone call, Fury and Sapio managed to convincingly reanimate Gleason and Carney. Bradshaw conveys the slow workings of Bobby's brain by inserting pauses before his answers to simple questions that are painfully long.
If Haarstad continues to combine high quality acting, edgy choices in playwrights, stripped-down, immediate sets, and nuanced direction for his "gypsy theater" performances, then Theater Incognita will be a caravan worth following.