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San Francisco by Richard Connema

David Mamet’s American Buffalo
is No Wooden Nickel

Also see Richard's review of Grease

The American Conservatory Theatre opens its 2003 season with a brilliant production of David Mamet’s classic drama American Buffalo, showcasing an exceptional three member cast. David Mamet is one of America’s greatest living playwrights in my estimation with his dialogue which is a mixture of street smart lingo and machismo speech The playwright has a certain rhythmic banter that I find pleasing to the ear.

My first experience with this play was at the Barrymore Theatre in New York in 1977 when I saw Robert Duvall, John Savage and Kenneth McMillan play the roles of the confused crooks. Variety at the time said it was “merely a situation sketch about subhumans too feeble minded to work out a plan for a burglary.” That might be true, but I don’t agree that it is merely a situation sketch, since Mamet draws the audience into the lives and minds of these Chicago low lifers. Later I saw the revival at Circle In the Square with Al Pacino taking over the role of Teacher. Mr. Pacino also toured with show when it played here on the west coast. The film version starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson followed the play faithfully.

Buffalo is about three petty hoodlums who are holed up in a junk shop owned by one the crooks, Donny Dubrow (Matt DeCaro). Teacher (Marco Barricelli) is a working class, ex-con loud mouth who has peculiar intellectual pretensions. He is a self-identified leader without a pack, an opportunist who needs to be the leader of this burglary. His motto is “Kick ass or kiss ass.” He can also be very brutal. The third member of this gang is a teenager named Bobby (Damon Seawell), an ex-drug addict that Don has taken under his wing.

The burglary centers on the three scheming to rip off a rare coin collection that contains an exceptional buffalo nickel. The conversation between them as they plan the inept burglary is sheer genius. You see how Teacher begins to wheedle his way into becoming the leader of the pack. Mamet combines brilliantly distinctive dialogue and street language into compelling urban poetry. A good example of this is when Don says to Bobby:

There's business and there's friendship, Bobby. There are many things, and when you walk around you hear a lot of things, and what you got to do is keep clear who your friends are, and who treated you like what, or else the rest is garbage, because things are not always what they seem to be.

We also see that the robbery will serve as a rite to manhood for Bobby. The plot of the burglary itself becomes a metaphor for the deception of business practices in today’s world. Mamet says it best when he told Richard Gottlieb of the New York Times, “There’s really no difference between the 'lumpenproletariat' [of American Buffalo] and the stockbrokers or corporate lawyers who are the lackeys of business.”

Marco Barricelli gives a wonderfully funny performance as Teacher. He swaggers about the stage with a booming voice. Teacher is both comic and dangerous, and his raging insecurity erupts in furious tirades on the littlest of subjects. He uses the “f” word in almost all of his sentences. He is the original “angry young man.” Barricelli gives a tour de force in this production.

Matt DeCaro, a well known Chicago and New York actor, is excellent as Donny Dubrow. He captures both the well meaning, paternal side of the character along with the ugly suggestibility that causes him to fall prey to Teacher’s lies. Damon Seawell as Bobby has the right tremulous desire to please his surrogate father. Seawell instills this small boyish character with a set of touching qualities.

Kent Dorsey's junk store set has amazing detail with an incredible collection of bric-a-brac, including everything but the kitchen sink (though that might be in there also). Richard E. T. White's direction is fast, taut with not a wasted minute, in this two hour with intermission play.

American Buffalo runs thru February 9th at the Geary Theatre. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. The next production at A.C.T. will be the Off Broadway hit The Dazzle which opens on February 14th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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