To some people the words “American Buffalo” suggest a legendary large animal whose herds have been long roaming all over this part of the nation. i.e bison. But, by now, a large number of other people know that this refers to a famed collectible coin. Like the one which underpins the eponymous play by David Mamet. His numerous works have been ranging stages all over the world. And this guy’s dialogue has become the cause for coining a famous phrase, “Mamet speak.”
Getting down to history, this American Buffalo has become some kind of a legend itself. The New York Times hailed this breakthrough work as “Gripping drama.” Flourishing for almost three decades. Award winner. Major acclaim.
Among the impressed is Susan Clement-Toberer, Producing Artistic Director of Blue Barn Theatre. She chose to present and direct it as the opener of the Theatre’s final season in its current home before the company re-situates. Reason? The play stole the spotlight in Blue Barn’s first season 25 years ago. “A perfect wrap -up,” she says.
She’s never directed Mamet’s work before. A big challenge, according to her. Fractured dialogue. Broken sentences. Deliberate silent pauses. Long ones. Ludicrously comic moments. Yet “super rhythmic. Shakespeare on the edge.” Quoting the playwright: “A kind of iambic pentameter of the underclass.”
There’s profanity. Lots of it. Damn straight. You knew that, huh? “Swearing is not for shock value,” she points out, “but an integral component of his characters.” Another quote from the writer: “profane poetry”
So that’s it? This is all about style? No way, pal. Mamet speaks: “The play is about the American ethic of business, about how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business.” He was angry about business when he set furious pencil to paper, his preferred method, even today.
How does that point manifest itself in this epithet-peppered slice of life about honor among thieves? Ponder it from witnessing three small-time crooks, hanging out in a grubby junkshop, scheming to rob a coin collector and cop that valuable hunk of metal. Plus some critics see this as zeroing in on typical American men, trying to hide their feelings, trying to manipulate other men. Small talkers. Yup. Not big on decisive action.
Mamet has said, in Paris Review, that criminals fascinate him because they “subsume outsiders” accepting people with “not very well-formed egos,” doing things which “reward the ability to improvise.” As for why he came up with writing this play, it was spurred by a moment in Chicago when he dropped in on friend and actor William Macy. Both of them, he said “were screamingly poor.” Mamet swiped a big piece of cheese out of Macy’s refrigerator. Macy got really angry. Mamet says that he was so hurt by his friend’s attitude that he started writing about it. That became the kick-off to the play. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1280/the-art-of-theater-no-11-david-mamet
Despite the personalities of these mugs in American Buffalo, their bravado, their inevitable nastiness, they have something softer hidden within. Clement-Toberer sees suggestions of that, given that the setting is the 70s. “There’s an innocence that precisely belongs to that time and to the U.S. Things that happen there wouldn’t be the same today.”
Her cast: Thomas Becker, Jerry Longe and Jonathan Purcell,
As for other reasons why she chose to offer this, it’s a gut feeling. Like anything she decides to produce, she wants the words to move her from the page, propelling her to bring them to life. Such an internal response also accounts for deciding to present in the same season Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews (“excitingly new and moving”) which provoked Broadway audiences late in 2013 followed by the classic Our Town by Thornton Wilder (“comfortable, causing us to connect.”). As for intending a link among the three: “It’s a kinesthetic response,” she explains, “that causes me to put them together.” Perhaps, too, she observed that a small treasured object in Harmon’s script is a major focal point, like Mamet’s buffalo nickel. And that Harmon, writing about family, shows kinship to Wilder’s people. Plus, of course, all three authors are Americans writing about Americans.
Re Mr. Mamet you might be interested to know, if you don’t already, that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross. Among his 20 other plays are Race and Speed the Plow. You may recall that Omaha Community Playhouse had a first-rate production of the former about four months ago. And Omaha’s Circle Theatre has announced plans to stage the latter in November. Among Mamet’s 25 screenplays are The Verdict, Hoffa and Wag the Dog and his movie House of Games won Best Film and Best Screenplay awards at the 1987 Venice Film Festival and Film of the Year in the 1989 London Critics Circle Film Awards. Moreover he is the creator, producer and frequent writer of the television series The Unit and a contributing blogger at The Huffington Post. More at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Mamet
About taking on a Mamet script for the first time, Clement-Toberer adds “It’s terrifying and exhilarating. But that’s what good theatre is.”
American Buffalo plays October 2-25 at Blue Barn Theatre 614 S. 11th St. Omaha. Thurs-Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. Info at www.bluebarn.org