The riveting first act of Saturday night's performance of David Mamet's American Buffalo was prefaced by an unscripted musical overture: an incomplete, garage-band rendition of the blues classic "Born Under A Bad Sign." The visceral bassline of this archetypal hard-luck song - rendered starkly by just an electric guitar and bass - foreshadowed much of the rough stuff to come as it rattled the junkshop in which the play's action occurs with ominous low-frequency rumbles.
The production was staged by Theatre Incognita, a group founded by director Ross Haarsted to explore ideas of theatrical terra incognita. The performance space for this show was constructed in a CSMA classroom/studio, in which significantly more space was devoted to the L-shaped set than to the terraces of seats. Before the show started, we were informed about the location of the exits in the makeshift theater - and that these exits would also be used by the actors throughout the show. The introduction concluded with a statement that Haarstad had been "waiting for four years to get these three actors together."
Five minutes into the first act, it was abundantly clear what Haarstad had waited for: Mamet's scathing sendup of American manhood was so powerfully inhabited by the play's cast that it felt as if it had been written for these three actors alone. The character of Donnie, the junkshop owner, in particular, was imbued with solidity and conviction by an actor with a great name: R.M. Fury, who played the odious loudmouth Roy Cohn in Haarstad's production of Angels In America - and whose credits include great roles ranging from Stanley Kowalski to Shylock. But Fury's Donnie is a stronger, calmer, and probably more decent man than Mamet calls for. Fury's delivery was impeccable in its timing and authenticity, but his genius lay more in bemused intensity than words.
Which opened the door for the schnorring histrionics of the perpetually outraged Teach, performed at a constant boiling-over point by the multi-talented George Sapio. Sapio, an award-winning playwright and director, is also a photojournalist who published Collateral Damage, featuring pictures from two trips to Iraq in 2003; his Teach was perhaps more worldly and five-boroughs-wise than Mamet envisions, but his paranoia runs deep and true to the the play's core. It is as a catalyst for chaos that Teach eviscerates the tenuous homeostasis of the junkshop. Haarstad and Sapio's Teach augments Mamet's relentless language with frequent, unexpected gesticulations - at one point he breaks into a sort of improvised sign language - that occasionally add humor but more often embody the genuine pathos of what unfolds.
The entire play takes place in Donnie's junk shop, and the three actors spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen in an obvious nod to Beckett, but when things actually do occur, they inevitably - almost compulsively - screw things up. The also excellent Abel McSurely Bradshaw hangs around nervously as sidekick/gopher Bobby, whose chronically-delayed delivery elicits Donnie's latent kindness as easily as it keeps inadvertently throwing Teach's driving cynicism off balance. And his wide-eyed confusion provides a niggling possibility of drug addiction, which floats just outside of the business at hand throughout the play.
Although American Buffalo was written in the mid-'70s, it feels entirely relevant to our current post-Bush recession, and the tense edginess with which Teach and Donnie regard the world at large could as easily be fueled by today's fear-mongering media bloviators as by the gas shortages of its time. Seeds of resentment and a sense of lost entitlement have been firmly planted in the testosterone-addled brains of these self-fulfilling ne'er-do-wells, whose ostensibly libertarian views sound as much like the one-dimensional mantra of urban rappers talking about "gettin' paid" as a weary lament of post-industrial America's disenfranchised.
The insidious self-immolation of Mamet's characters is made all the more wrenching because it is a pathetic echo of the mindset that is alive and well on a Wall Street comfortably validated - let alone padded from despair - by bailouts and cheerful platitudes about free markets; Teach, Donnie, and Bobby, however, inhabit a world of terrible emptiness, and their attempts to create what they call "business" for themselves reeks of paranoid fear and wasted adrenalin.
Which would be my only real complaint about an otherwise phenomenal performance of this powerful play. While the first act simmers with anger and scheming, the second act comes on furious and ends in feckless mayhem. Just as overuse of sound effects in a movie betrays a lack of confidence in the visual images, this play just gets too damn loud and out of control at the end to remain poignant. American manhood may be chronically ravaged by self-inflicted wounds sustained by capitalism's ruthless combat for acquisition and power, but Mamet's play ends in tears and remorse. How we get to that end is more complex than a mere tantrum.