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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The play's dramatic personae consists of a trio of inept hustlers hooked on the belief that action and enterprise hold the key to their getting a share of the American pie. They're entrepreneurs without entrepreneurial skills. Enterprise to them equals a scam. Their latest A & E mission is triggered by a rare Buffalo nickel that found its way into the junk shop owned by Don (Philip Baker Hall), the eldest member of the trio and the only one who could be said to have an identifiable occupation. The mind-boggling array of worthless goods with which set designer Kevin Rigdon has stocked the shop pretty much applies in human terms to Don and his two cronies, the always ready to explode Teach (William H. Macy) and the blank-faced apprentice hustler Bobby (Mark Webber). The floor-to-ceiling, front to back stuffed shop is the strategy room for the planned coin robbery and the battleground for who's in, who's out, who's in charge. Though at one point a gun comes into play, the real weapon in this duel is language -- the language of deceptively limited vocabulary and grammatical structure -- and the inevitable cause of the robbery's collapse is mutual suspicion and stupidity.
What makes this play more than a caustic picture of three men who will never climb above the bottom rung of the social ladder, is that Mamet forces us to see them as real there-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I human beings. They are not admirable, but neither are they monsters as much as monstrous illustrations of a world that allows so many lives to fall between the cracks. As importantly, this production's cast may lack the sinister grit of previously famous interpreters of these roles, but that shift in nuance is caught with a strong ensemble rhythm.
In an interview in the March 10th issue of BackStage, William H. Macy spoke about the ghosts of illustrious predecessors in the key role of Teach (e.g., Al Pacino in 1981 and Robert Duvall in 1981). To face that challenge he said "I use a stiletto rather than a sledgehammer." After watching him wield that stiletto, all I can say is, the stiletto is an interesting substitute for that hammer. He commands our attention, and our sympathy -- from the moment he bursts through the door of Don's junk shop, all edgy temperamentality and flash (aptly abetted by Laura Bauer's costumes -- especially, that in-your-face print lining in the cheap jacket), to his final despairing "I go out there. . .there's nothing out there. . ." Having once played Bobby, Mr. Macy's Teach, even with his mustache and lengthy philosophisizing (there's a metaphor in that name!) and bursts of rage, still conveys some of that boy-man's neediness. It seems inevitable that in due time Macey will tackle Don. In the meantime, his cohorts in this production will do very nicely, thank you. Mark Webber, fills Bobby's shoes with an especially affecting air of forlornness and dead pan humor. Philip Baker Hall plays Don with the almost father-figure benevolence called for by this restaging.
Opening within a week of another new take on a play noted for its grit, Sam Shepard's True West, comparison's are inevitable. True West is a sturdier, more polished vehicle than American Buffalo; the latter being more clearly an early work that evolved into more robust offshoots. Yet, American Buffalo too has characters who are enduring types who, as proved by this production, lend themselves to different interpretations.
For our CurtainUp's backgrounder on David Mamet which includes links to other Mamet plays including those earlier in the Atlantic's tribute to its founding member go here