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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Steppenwolf's American Buffalo Roars into New Jersey

Also see Bob's reviews of Doubt and The Kathy and Mo Show

Kurt Ehrmann, Patrick Andrews and Tracy Letts
The Steppenwolf American Buffalo currently at the McCarter Theatre, is a production for which I have been waiting for over thirty years. This clear, illuminating, fierce and loving production of the 1977 New York Drama Critics Circle Award Best Play is American theatre of the highest order. Although I long ago become a strong admirer of the plays and screenplays of David Mamet, I found the initial Broadway production of American Buffalo to be inaccessible. The setting was dark and furtive, more like a barely lit hideout in the back of a store than an actual resale shop. The dialogue seemed overly stylized, both in the writing and delivery, and, as odd as it seems to me now, impenetrable. I had forgotten that despite its award status and the presence of Robert Duvall (as Teach), the Ulu Grosbard directed production ran barely four months. Although the play certainly had its admirers from the get-go, I cannot help but wonder how many others reacted as I did to that production. Thus, whatever you may have thought of American Buffalo in 1977 or in any of its also short run, major revivals, I urge you to get over to the McCarter to see Steppenwolf's crackerjack, revitalizing revival of David Mamet's justly iconic American play.

The plot mechanics are simple. Three petty criminals plot to break into the house of a coin collector in order to steal his valuable coins. Donny Dubrow, the senior of the three and the only one who may rise to the level of half smart, discovered this collector when the latter bought a rare American Buffalo Head nickel from his resale shop. His friend Teach is a volatile, violent tempered guy who is always trying to impress himself and Donny by acting dominant and touting his imagined intelligence. Youngest and most pathetic is Bob, a strung out, lamebrain junkie whom Donny has taken under his protective wing. A fourth member of the crew is Fletcher who, despite never being seen, is key to the plot.

The virtues of American Buffalo are fully integrated. They include crackling dialogue, vivid characterizations, and a sympathetic insight into marginalized men who find solace in their relationship with one another. The stick of dynamite in the midst of all this is the ready to burst, viscerally felt violence that bubbles within and about them.

Director Amy Morton and her cast deliver Mamet's dialogue in a clear, naturalistic (yes, naturalistic) rapid-fire manner which never muffles the whiplash power inherent in the text. The well lit set of a basement resale shop in which Morton has placed the play is a home away from home for Don, Teach and Bob. It is the place in their world where each is most comfortable, needed and alive. Kevin Depinet's detailed set includes a long stairway to the visible street above. It is extravagantly packed with a plethora of items. It also takes quite a beating when all hell breaks loose among the petty criminal threesome. I do not envy the task that stage manager Christine D. Freeburg must have in order to reassemble the set for each performance. Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins has provided appropriately tacky outfits for the cast.

The Steppenwolf ensemble is seamless. Tracy Letts (best known to us as the author of August: Osage County) as Teach exudes the danger posed by a violent man with a hair-trigger temper and lack of good sense. Like an idiot savant, his Teach rises to his height of understanding when he clearly and lucidly explains to Donny how he spotted that Fletcher had cheated in order to win a card game the previous night. The scene is so perfectly written and acted that it causes us to believe that we were at that card game with them. Teach's plan for breaking into the safe with the coins is truly riotous. Yet, Letts never takes Teach over the top to the point where his showy role becomes a star turn throwing the ensemble out of balance. Kurt Ehrmann's subtly multi-layered performance reveals that the older and little wiser Donny actually has the same hair-trigger emotional response to his frustrations as Donny, the only difference being that the wisdom of age allows him to suppress and hide them. It seems safe to conclude that Donny was very much like Teach when he was younger, and that at some level Donny is as concerned about and protective of Teach as he is of Bob. When Teach is being particularly obstreperous, Donny switches to addressing him by his real name, Walt. Patrick Andrews makes manifest Bob's hopeless weakness and limited brain power. Andrews is extremely touching when his Bob performs a generous act which reveals that he is aware and appreciative of Donny's kindness toward him.

As for the often noted profanity that David Mamet employs, well ... just enjoy it. The language is appropriate and illuminating, and filled with rich character based humor. Mamet has stated that American Buffalo is a critique of the ethics of American business. When analyzing the play, one can find a basis for consideration of Mamet's statement.

Steppenwolf (and McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann) have made much of the company's special ability to interpret the Chicago argot of the homegrown David Mamet. After seeing Steppenwolf's smashing production of American Buffalo, there is no way that I could argue with them. Do not miss this one.

American Buffalo continues performances (Eves: Tuesday-Thursday Sunday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Mats. Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through March 28, 2010, at the McCarter Theatre, Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online at

American Buffalo by David Mamet; directed by Amy Morton
Donny.....................Kurt Ehrmann
Bob.....................Patrick Andrews
Teach..........................Tracy Letts

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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