theater review  

THEATER; 'American Buffalo' in Chappaqua Revival

Published: April 30, 1995, Sunday

IN 1975, David Mamet was known by virtue of his popular double bill "Duck Variations" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." That was the year the galvanizing force of the playwright's full-length work first struck, indelibly, with "American Buffalo."

After the play's Off Broadway premiere, Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times: "Actors, as well as ordinary theatergoers, should be interested in Mr. Mamet. He is a writer to be encouraged."

"American Buffalo," which is about a small-time heist that fails, went on to an acclaimed Broadway production the following year (with Robert Duvall as Teach, the most compelling of the play's three ignoble characters) and to instant replay at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and Off Broadway and a Broadway encore -- all with Al Pacino in the showy role.

And so unstoppably did Mamet ascend as the American theater's most prolific chronicler of human nature's treacherous underside that it is no longer necessary to call him Mr.; the surname has become synonymous with a style, an idiosyncratic way with words: abrupt, rude, spare, many layered and cryptic. No surprise, the new Mamet play, now in Manhattan, is "The Cryptogram."

For Mamet followers, it is instructive to reconsider the first rush of the playwright's big-league success, written when he was 27, and the Coyote Theater is obliging. The company is responsibly producing "American Buffalo" -- the title refers to a supposedly valuable nickel "from 19-something" -- with a grasp of the play's language cadences and its moral source as well as a sense of connection to the playwright's oeuvre.

Consider how Mamet gave the scathing once-over to low-down real estate maneuvering ("Glengarry Glen Ross") and to the ruthless behind-the-scenes plotting of the movie industry ("Speed-the-Plow"). Given that perspective, the playwright's analogies between business and burglary in "American Buffalo" can be perceived as the beginnings, the bottom rung in the hierarchy of unscrupulousness. Here is pettiness at its pettiest, the deals of the streets before they become the transactions of the office.

And notice how a subtle climax takes on a new resonance. When Bobby -- the naive scapegoat, the blamed messenger, the classic chump, the third stooge -- innocently reveals that he performed an undevious act "for Donny" (his mentor of crime), one thinks of the vulnerable youngster at the receiving end of adult callousness in Mamet's latest play. Not that one needs to be a Mamet maven to get the rewards of this production.

For Bart Shatto as Bobby makes of this moment a plainly touching muted cry for love. The actor is so skillful that the playwright's conscience cuts through the surrounding sleaze in a flash.

Since Mamet is all too often thought of in terms of ingrained misogyny and stereotypically macho attitudes, it is bracing to see his work directed by a woman. One is reminded of the perceptiveness of the director Burry Fredrik's production of "Speed-the-Plow" several years ago at the Westport Playhouse. Judy Goldman's discerning staging here defies labels and invalidates Mamet as an exclusive spokesman for the caveman mentality.

Ms. Goldman is in tune with the playwright's vivid details so that unseen characters and off-stage directions (cops cruising outside the junk shop) are an integral part of the action. The production amplifies Mamet's craftiness with cliches ("Some people never change," "Things are not always what they seem to be," "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day").

And the performances represent three dissonant chords in acting harmony: the wired Teach of Jim Shankman, all frayed nerve endings, a distillation of urgency and humor, eruptions that come from the terror and the rage of the disfranchised; Herman Petras's doltish, latently paternal Donny and Mr. Shatto's wounded Bobby. It isn't often that a play of manifest violence has such a humanizing effect. But isn't that just what an artist who interprets a society in ethical collapse has in mind?