'Buffalo' gets down and gritty in Berkshires
Berkshire fest gives 'Buffalo' everything it's got
STOCKBRIDGE -- With its profane, scuzzy arias and brutally choreographed minuets of despair, ''American Buffalo" thrust David Mamet's vision of drama as lowlife poetry onto the center stage of 1970s theater. Three decades later, Mamet's fivepenny opera has spawned whole schools of imitators, including, sometimes, Mamet himself. But the cadenced nihilism of the original is still, love it or hate it, unique.
Love it or hate it? For me, Mamet, particularly in this gritty dissection of three losers hoping to win big by stealing an old ''buffalo" nickel and some other rare coins, does what he does brilliantly. I just question whether what he does is the most, or the best, that theater can dare to do.
Anders Cato's production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival gives the play every chance to make a case for itself. Carl Sprague's junk-shop setting, sensitively and dingily lit by Jeff Davis, places a grimy cage around the three actors, each excellent but each tuned to a slightly different key (and each dressed by Olivera Gajic in appropriately ugly polyester that unfortunately looks too clean for these surroundings).
In the role that has drawn very different performances from Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman, Chris Noth, as the bullying not-so-wiseguy Teach, has a twitchy, manic energy that persuasively builds to menacing rage. He also has a handsome and charismatic presence, familiar to viewers of ''Law & Order" and ''Sex and the City," that even a greased-back hairstyle and dorky sideburns can't fully obliterate. At first, this feels distracting, but Noth constructs his performance with such fluid specificity that we end up believing in his Teach: a dangerously angry man who finds himself charming, even if no one else would agree.
Jim Frangione, a Mamet regular who plays the Dennis Franz role of junk-shop owner Don, delivers his staccato bursts of curses and cliches in classic ''Mametspeak" style. This is the sound we expect in ''American Buffalo," and Frangione does it superbly. But the contrast with Noth's looser, more flowing line readings raises questions about whether the playwright's own famous insistence on this rat-a-tat rap really serves his characters best. Frangione's Don is a familiar Mamet guy, but Noth's Teach almost seems like an actual human being.
Sean Nelson, who plays young gofer Bobby as he did in the Franz/Hoffman film version, lands somewhere between these two extremes. Lost, vulnerable, and scared, Nelson's Bobby cringes from Teach's fury and looks to Don for a comfort that the older man can only barely provide. If the play has a heart, we see it in the tentative, fumbling embrace that Don and Bobby share at the end.
But does it have a heart? Critics have seen everything from Watergate to a devastating critique of the American Dream providing weighty subtext to the minimalist text of ''Buffalo." Cato, in his direction and in his program notes, puts himself squarely in the American Dream camp and makes that argument with vigor. After two hours in the junk shop with a trio of unredeemed lowlifes, though, I still come away unpersuaded that this nickel is worth more than face value.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.