Ready for a fresh plot? Turn off the TV. Go out and see American Buffalo at Centerstage — running now through December 11. It just might make you want to turn back on the TV and experience some of Mamet’s satisfying screenwriting.
Seasoned actors William Hill (Don), Rusty Ross (Bob), and Jordan Lage (Teach) rock a Mamet script that zigs and zags in stunningly unpredictable directions, even for Mamet, from whom we’ve come to expect twists both organic and blindsiding. Without giving anything away: The three men–Don, a junk shop owner, Bob, his dim protege, and Teach, Don’s misanthropic “friend”–conspire to steal a coin collection from a wealthy guy. Their hungry planning and anxious manipulation rule each scene, and because the performers deliver the (no-doubt-difficult-to-memorize) dialogue so effectively, we’re reminded how thrillingly well Mamet writes his talk. Gritty vernacular + rhythmic poetry = language that sounds realer than reality. As you may know, the playwright invented his speak cribbing notes from daily life in Chicago, day and night.
As Kellie Mecleary, production dramaturg, explains in Centerstage Magazine, “…Mamet spent his time wandering around the city with a spiral notebook, recording bits of conversation in ramshackle bars, gyms, old Jewish bathhouses, and junk shops. One junk shop on the North Side he frequented…the location for an ongoing poker game… The players distrusted Mamet at first…until they discovered a mutual connection: the Pontiac Correctional Center, where Mamet taught and many of the men had served time. This earned him a spot at the table and the nickname Teach. The shop and its hardscrabble clientele provided inspiration for American Buffalo.”
Director Liesl Tommy, making her Centerstage debut, does an inventive job with a play that, despite its nuanced narrative, keeps its cast rooted in one setting the entire time–Don’s resale shop on Chicago’s North Side.
While each actor impresses, Hill (kind-hearted Don) is hard not to favor. During the intermission, he emerges from backstage to sweep his shop in the shadows, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup and waiting impatiently for the night’s darkest action to unfold. He makes us want to urge dawdlers back to their seats.
So, anyway, we say go see the fine production, then explore more Mamet classics (five stars to the forgotten film House of Cards) or review your favorites, but don’t feel bad if you can’t ever divine the final scene.
“Anyone can write five people trapped in a snowstorm,” the playwright said. “The question is how you get them into the snowstorm. It’s hard to write a good play because it’s hard to structure a plot. If you can think of it off the top of your head, so can the audience. To think of a plot that is, as Aristotle says, surprising and yet inevitable, is a lot, lot, lot of work.”