Thursday, January 15, 2009

Scott Shines in Compass’s American Buffalo


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In 1976, David Mamet exploded on the American theatre scene with a play called American Buffalo. He’d attracted some notice before, mostly for a fairly normal if somewhat envelope-pushing romantic comedy called Sexual Perversity in Chicago that wasn’t anywhere nearly as racy as its title, but American Buffalo was the work that made him a star writer. Seen today, in the tight, impactful production Compass Theatre at 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest is running through February 15, American Buffalo still stuns, even though it’s not as strong a work as Mamet’s acknowledged masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross, which Compass (under its former 6th @ Penn identity) produced to great acclaim and solid box-office two years ago.

American Buffalo is the sort of play that’s rich in symbolism but never wears it on its sleeve. The three on-stage characters are Don (Walter Murray), owner of a so-called “resale shop” (actually a junk shop) and his friends Bobby (Nathan Dean Snyder), a young proletarian guy who appears to work in a garage (at least judging by all the grease stains on his orange jacket and blue jeans) and keeps bursting into Don’s store to demand money; and Teach (Matt Scott), a bundle of nervous energy and barely suppressed rage who kick-starts the main story. The play’s title comes from a rare coin, a buffalo-backed nickel which Don inadvertently sold to a coin collector, ignorant of its true value. Under Teach’s powers of persuasion, Don plots to get the coin back and make an easy score by robbing the collector who bought it.

Mamet’s acknowledged debt to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter is readily apparent in this play, whose sentences frequently loop around each other and contradict themselves before the speakers have finished them. So is Mamet’s trademark, a relentless use of profanity that makes you wonder if you could write a play and win praise for your “well-turned dialogue,” as Mamet has, simply by making every other word an obscenity. Indeed, one could well argue that the fabled “Mametspeak,” as the terse, clipped language his plays are written in has come to be called, is merely Beckettspeak or Pinterspeak with swear words added.

The play’s symbolism is subtle but clear-cut. Don, Bobby and Teach are pathetic losers, and the work’s pathos lies in the vast gulf between their dreams and their likely reality — not exactly a fresh theme for drama, but rarely as well done as it is here. The buffalo nickel symbolizes not only accidental wealth but the limitless possibilities the settlers of the American West saw in the prairies of Mamet’s native Midwest when they first got there — ripe for the taking as soon as they could clear away the inconvenient presence of the buffalo and the Native Americans who relied on them for food, clothing and materials for shelter.

Mamet sparked controversy when he published an essay in the March 11, 2008 Village Voice called, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” Though a lot of his long-term admirers were disappointed, to say the least, that a writer noted for his subtlety and richness of characterization was coming off like a run-of-the-mill Right-wing talk-show host with snide comments about “brain-dead liberals” and “National Palestinian Radio” (Mamet is hardly the first — nor is he likely to be the last — Jew who moves to the Right under the influence of Israelphilia!), it’s probably not much different from the similar conversion of another famous playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who once famously quipped that anyone who was 20 who wasn’t a socialist had no heart, while anyone who was 40 who was a socialist had no head.

Not that Mamet was ever anyone’s beau ideal of liberalism, even if he started his political blog in 2005 on the Huffington Post site — whose proprietor, Arianna Huffington, had famously moved in the opposite political direction. His thinly veiled contempt for women, already very much a part of his work in American Buffalo — where there are no female characters on stage, no hint that any of the men are in romantic or sexual relationships with women (or with men either!), and the only two women mentioned in the play are the owners of the diner where the men eat, and whom they furiously denounce as “dykes” — lost all pretense in Oleanna, a play and film on sexual harassment in which Mamet took the side of the male college professor charged with sexual come-ons by a female student. Chris Schneider reviewed the film version of Oleanna (which Mamet both wrote and directed) for Zenger’s in 1994 and called it “the cinema of the storm-trooper’s boot.”

Be that as it may, one remark in Mamet’s goodbye-to-all-that essay in the Village Voice sheds a great deal of light on his overall attitude towards humanity. “People are swine,” he wrote, “and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.” That’s what American Buffalo, with its bewildering series of double- and triple-crosses between three losers we know aren’t going to be any better off, financially or morally, at the end than they are at the beginning, is really about — and that’s the play Compass Theatre and its director, Ruff Yeager, put on their stage with relentless energy and without compromise.

Yeager takes a play that could be static as all hell — it never leaves the single set of Don’s shop — and gives it the powerful, swirling energy it needs to work. Compass artistic director Josh Hyatt is credited with the props (as well as the costume design) but Yeager proudly boasted during the intermission of the January 9 performance (on which this review is based) that he had helped collect them as well. Indeed, Yeager said, he’d had to make multiple trips to local thrift store to collect the appalling junk that forms Don’s stock — reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s song about a junk shop: “’Buy, buy,’ says the sign in the shop window/’Why, why,’ says the junk in the yard.”

The junk becomes almost a fourth character in the play, a powerful symbol of the gap between these people’s aspirations and their achievements. One can’t look at the turntable, the full-format video camera, the Oster “Snoflake” ice-crushing machine (still in its original box!) and the other bizarre items Don is trying to sell without recalling that years before these gadgets were the acme of high-tech. The point, of course, is that the people in the play have aged as badly as the junk. Yeager’s direction is so sensitive through most of the play it’s surprising he missed the gimmick used to start the play in the recent Broadway revival — framing the opening announcement in Mametian terms by telling the audience to “turn off your fuckin’ cell phones” — but he gets everything else right, maintaining a swirling pace, blocking the action effectively and making the fight scenes seem real.

He’s also got a great leading actor in Matt Scott (who also built the set to Chad Jaeger’s design). Unintimidated by the long shadows cast by the brilliant actors who’ve played this part before — Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy and (in the recent revival) John Leguizamo — Scott creates a Teach at once deadly and irresistible, energetic and bored, optimistic and deeply despairing, motivated by an unfocused anger at the way life has passed him by. He even manages to look sexy in a pair of hideously ugly 1970’s-period polyester slacks. Scott towers over his co-stars — though that’s at least partly Mamet’s fault for underwriting the other two roles.

Walter Murray does well with the calming, eye-of-the-storm aspects of Don, but we never quite understand what tempts this man to dishonesty, nor do we quite accept him as someone with the smarts to keep a store in business for any length of time. Nathan Dean Snyder does his best with an ill-defined role for which he’s somewhat miscast; he’s too cute to be believable as a proletarian (all those grease stains on his clothes can’t convince us that he makes his living with his hands) and he does the character’s desperation well but has a harder time making us believe that the other two men would tolerate his presence for long.

Still, American Buffalo is a worthwhile play and Compass’s production does it justice. The set is excellent — we’re not palmed off with a table and two chairs the way some community theatres do — and the actors, especially Scott, are dressed effectively by Hyatt and dramatically lit by Mitchell Simkovsky. American Buffalo is proof positive that a strong community theatre can muster the energy to do a convincing production of an acknowledged classic even on a limited budget; it deserves your attention, and Compass and its parent organization, San Diego Theatre Scene, Inc. deserve your help.

American Buffalo is playing through Sunday, February 15 at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue (at Pennsylvania) in Hillcrest. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. To order tickets, or for more information, please call (619) 688-9210 or visit