American Buffalo (Troop Productions)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
October 25 – October 29
The excellence of Troop Productions’ take of David Mamet’s 1975 classic, “American Buffalo” is evident right from initial audience entry into the Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre. Dimly-lit, every nook and cranny of George Greenhill’s set design serves to transform the space into Don’s Resale Shop, the run-down urban junk shop setting in which the entire play takes place. With vintage colour Tupperware on its shelves and a rotary dial telephone on owner Donny’s (Ron Kelly) desk, the story’s 1970s setting is clear and confirmed by the well-chosen costumes of its three characters.
Stuffed with everything from typewriter to steering wheel, there is an apparent “Sanford and Son” feel to the aesthetic, but it is soon apparent that this is no sitcom-ish comedy. Rather, the bold work, which arose from the playwright’s observations of streetlife in 1970s Chicago is a gritty, hard-hitting examination of small-time crooks, despite being an essential simple story of a crime that never actually occurs.
The most distinct aspect of the work is its streetwise dialogue, briskly delivered to create an innate rhythm in the characters’ back and forth banter. Although the language itself is simple, and often profane, as is Mamet’s signature style, in the mouths of the cast it dances around to make for many moments of humour as, for example, questions are answered with questions. This unfortunately also means that it is a long setup and considerably into Act One for the plot begins to take shape.
The story is of junk-shop owner Donny, who, after discovering that he sold a rare buffalo nickel to a customer for far less than its true value, conspires with his young gopher employee Bobby (Jackson McGovern) to steal it back. When Bobby’s shifty opportunist poker-buddy ‘Teach’ Cole (Derek Draper) tries to manipulate his way into the deal at Bobby’s expense, the pursuit of their twisted vision of the American dream is thwarted by their greed, and, as suspicion sets in, things begin to go awry.
While Mamet’s words make the play interesting, it is the cast, under Keiran Brice’s direction, that brings the truth to the work’s questions about the price of success with their realistic portrayals of the three Americans. Kelly is an engaging Don, conflicted between decency and betrayal, but ever the character and never one to miss opportunity for a swindle. And McGovern shows such fragility as Bobby that it easy to understand Don’s moments of genuine paternalism towards the recovering addict, promising, for example to buy him the vitamins he cannot afford.
Even though their initial scene lacks intimacy as they speak across the stage, the play’s best moments come from Kelly and McGovern’s realisation of the relationship between Don and Bobby. The two are excellent together as they take audience from opening banter of apology to closing assurance of forgiveness. Meanwhile, Draper shifts the tone, bringing the highly-strung, fast-talking Teach to life with a committed physical performance as his swaggery bravado is increasingly overcome by distracting nervous shakes, anxious pacing and finger clicking as his moves to an ultimate eruption of violent hostility.
Certainly the language of “American Buffalo” may not be to every theatre-goers taste and while its pace may sag at times under the weight of the text’s wordiness, this is outweighed by the heightened naturalism of its performance and the intimacy of its considered staging. And then there are its themes of friendship and business, loyalty and betrayal, and most importantly expose of the futility of the idea that striving automatically entitles success in life, which are as relevant today as when the work first featured on Broadway in 1977. Indeed, in its expose of the essential ugliness of the American Dream, this “American Buffalo” has a primal appeal that makes it well worthy of audience time.
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