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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

American Buffalo

I have always been interested in the continuum that starts with charm and ends with psychopathy. Con artists deal in human nature, and what they do is in the realm of suggestion. It is like hypnosis or, to a certain extent, playwrighting
--- David Mamet, David Mamet in Conversation, 2001
Cranwell Resort

Chris Noth
Chris Noth as Teach in American Buffalo
(Photo Kenneth Sprague)
When Robert Duvall first burst onto the Ethel Barrymore theater's stage in 1977, his "fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie" sent mouths flying open in shock. And that was just one of the many linguistic bombs with which David Mamet seasoned the text of American Buffalo as generously as a cook in love is said to use salt.

If you were sitting in the first rows of another Broadway house, the Booth in 1983, you were likely to be sprayed with spittle by an even more volatile Walter "Teach" Cole -- Al Pacino. It was Pacino's wild-eyed, scenery-chewing portrayal that became the gold standard for any actor playing the lead screw-up in this Mametian trio of losers bonded by their ineptitude -- a microcosm of Mamet's view of the American business world.

After a rather tame Teach seen at Mamet's own Atlantic Theater five years ago (see link below), I can finally report that the Pacino gold standard has been met by Chris Noth. Though I must confess that I've never seen his Big in Sex and the City, this is not my first encounter with Mr. Noth's impressive stage work. I admired his terrifically funny and layered performance in Christopher Shinn's What Didn't Happen at Playwrights Horizon (see link below). His Teach in the Berkshire Theatre Festival's compelling revival bowled me over. The big guy he plays here is, oxymoronic as it may sound, a vulnerable psychotic. While the quirky movements, the dark rolling eyes are at times reminiscent of a taller, more muscular Pacino, Noth is not only very much his own Teach, but inhabits the role without spraying front row audience members with spit. And while he does ultimately take a bat to a good bit of Carl Sprague's masterfully assembled junk shop scenery, he doesn't chew it.

Memorable as his performance is, Noth isn't the only reason to see this American Buffalo even if you've seen it often enough to wonder whether it's worth yet another viewing, As with any revival of an early work by a playwright whose reputation has grown over the years, it's always fascinating to see a seminal early work.

If you've seen or plan to see Mamet's later and more mature Glengarry Glen Ross, which is currently enjoying a stellar revival on Broadway (see link below), you can see how the Stooges-like trio of Buffalo lives on in the real estate hustlers of Glengarry and how Arthur Miller's unforgettable creation, Willie Loman, hovers over Mamet's own unique landscape. As Willie is the central figure of the dysfunctional Loman family, so Teach is the most incendiarymember of Mamet's little " family" -- all of whom are doomed to remain part of the human detritus in a dusty, basement junk shop. The keystone cops heist initiated by the shop's owner Don (Jim Frangione) after realizing he may have sold a valuable American Buffalo nickel to a collector makes it clear that the real obsolete buffalos here are Teach and Don and his Go-fer Bob (Sean Nelson, who played Bob in the 1993 film version).

Mamet's extensive use of once taboo language has become so common that people are likely to find the barrage of linguistic bombs more tiresome than shocking. In fact, as I'm writing this review, the New York Times Styles section featured a front page piece headlined "Longing for a Cuss-Free Zone." Of course, in Mamet's case, cuss words aren't just cuss words and the rhythm of his profanity suggests more poet than vulgarian -- but it's an acquired taste, and if your prefer your poetry in a gentler and more genteel vein, this isn't going to be your cup of theatrical brew.

The language known as Mamet-speak calls for actors who not only speak his strong language with ease but are fluent in capturing the rhythm, humor and vulnerability underneath the often halting and mundane exchanges. Frangione's opening scene, with its deadpan instruction to Nelson's equally deadpan Bob, is as hilariously quotable as ever ("Just one thing, Bob. Action counts. (Pause.) Action talks and bullshit walks"). Don and Bob's maneuverings over money are reminiscent of Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's On First" routine. Noth brilliantly reveals the nervous insecurity beneath Teach's bluster with his facial expression and fluttery hands, and a momentarily self-reflective, confessional, "I’m out there every day. There is nothing out there. I fuck myself." His funniest moments are during a bungled telephone call.

After his rather startling (and to this reviewer, disconcerting) translation of Strindberg's The Father, director Anders Cato has given us a production that's true to Mr. Mamet's intent and mood. The staging couldn't be better. Carl Sprague's set with its amazing clutter is especially praiseworthy. Costume designer Olivera Gajic must have gone picking in some of the area's best junktique stores for the men's outfits -- her piece de resistance being Noth's too-tight, grossly patterned polyester shirt.

In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, Don eager to follow up on a rare profitable sale of an antique American Buffalo coin, concocts a plan to have Bobby steal some coins from the Buffalo coin buyer. Teach elbows Bob out and himself into the scheme, which not only fails but undoes the semblance of trust that bound them together. There are times when this doesn't seem quite enough to sustain two hours plus an intermission, but why quibble when we have a chance to see it done so well, and with such a splendid Teach.

American Buffalo (Atlantic Theater production)
What Didn't Happen with Chris North
Glengarry Glen Ross (current Broadway production)

Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Anders Cato Cast: Jim Frangione (Don Dubrow), Sean Nelson (Bobby), Chris Noth (Teach).
Set Design: Carl Sprague
Costume Design: Olivera Gajic
Lighting Designer: Jeff Davis
Composer and Sound Designer: Scott Killian
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes; one intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Main Stage, Stockbridge, 413-298-5576 or 866-811-4111.
From July 26 to August 13, 2005; opens, July 29
Monday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2pm.
Tickets: from $36 to $63; Students with proper ID receive 50 percent discount. .
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer July 30th
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