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American Buffalo

Taut drama takes on three men, a junk store, and the heist that tears them apart

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William Hill (Top) looks in on Rusty Ross.

American Buffalo

By David Mamet

Through Dec. 11 at Center Stage

You don’t go to a David Mamet play for a feel-good romp. You go for a pull-no-punches look at man’s struggle (let’s be honest, the focus is usually male) to get ahead in a harsh world. Center Stage ably captures this combination of drive and frustration with a taut, tension-filled production of American Buffalo. That’s not to say there aren’t laughs. Mamet’s rapid-fire dialogue falls somewhere between natural speech and a meeting of a Tourette’s and short-term-memory-loss support group, ensuring plenty of chuckles.

All the action takes place in a Chicago junk shop in the mid-’70s. Don (William Hill) runs the shop with help from Bobby (Rusty Ross). Bobby is either a junkie or slow, and most likely both, but Don treats him like a son, sweetly hectoring him to eat breakfast and take vitamins. But Don is not all teddy bear. He and Bobby are planning to burglarize someone that very night. A man recently bought a rare buffalo nickel off Don for $90. Don feels like he should have gotten more for the coin so he wants to get it and any others the man might have and sell them for a big payday.

Don’s friend Teach (Jordan Lage) stops by the shop, shouting obscenities. While Don and Bobby are quiet and even-tempered, Teach is larger than life; even his strides seem outsized. Teach is incensed because a friend begrudged him a slice of toast. He describes the encounter as if it were an epic tale of betrayal. It’s not long before Teach realizes that Don and Bobby are plotting something, and Teach wants in. In fact, he wants in and he wants Bobby out. The only thing more important to Teach than loyalty is making money. And that’s really what the play is about. It’s not about the heist. It’s about the tension between friendship and business, loyalty and every man for himself. The characters continually discuss the importance of keeping business separate from friendship, but it is their relationships that both tie them together and pull their plan apart.

The performance gets off to a slow start and doesn’t really find its footing until Lage’s Teach thunders in. His flamboyancy grounds the other two characters. Impressively, Lage manages to play the loud and dramatic Teach without ever seeming like a ham himself. Hill provides the play’s emotional core, giving Don a tenderness that never overflows into sentimentality. Ross doesn’t fare as well. His performance as Bobby is murky and cold. It would be easy to care about this child-like character but Ross doesn’t get the audience there until the end. As Bobby lies on the floor, he rubs his feet together as a child might while sleeping. It’s a small detail that does more to humanize the character than anything Ross says.

Leisl Tommy’s direction matches the frenetic pace of Mamet’s dialogue. Tommy manages to keep a play that is essentially about three guys talking moving. When the intermission comes, it’s a shock that an hour has elapsed. Tommy also brings out a vulnerability in her actors that makes the characters much more than macho crooks. That vulnerability makes the production most arresting when everything is going to shit.

Scenic designer Neil Patel’s set mirrors the brokenness of the characters. Don’s junk shop is so crammed with odd and ends that the items don’t just litter the set, they surround the stage in unstable piles. The walls and the roof of the shop are jagged as if the wall that would have blocked the audience’s view had been torn off, leaving the insulation inside poking out. The effect is mesmerizing, a flawless mess that you could spend more than the play’s two hours analyzing. Similarly, costume designer Kathleen Geldard shows an amazing eye for detail. She doesn’t just kit each character out in the outward trappings of the ’70s; she makes sure that even the underwear that occasionally peaks out of Bobby’s tan corduroys fits the character—dingy gray tighty-whities.

While the production doesn’t quite live up to the perfection of the set and costumes, Center Stage’s American Buffalo is the kind of show that gives its audience plenty to chew on. On the surface, it’s about planning a robbery, but what stays with you long after the lights come up is the relationships. In different ways, all three men reach out to one another as a life preserver only to end up pulling each other down.

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