‘American Buffalo’ shows ugly side of American Dream

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Brian Mani and James Ridge in American Players Theatre’s production of American Buffalo. — Photo: Zane Williams

According to the tenets of the American Dream, people are free to pursue the lives they want.

That dream takes a particularly ugly turn in David Mamet’s American Buffalo, which is part of American Players Theatre’s opening line-up for its 35th season. The production is performed in APT’s Touchstone Theatre.

Mamet’s rapid-fire, exceedingly vulgar 1975 tragi-comedy explores what happens when people not only don’t get what they want, but fail to understand why.

Donny (Brian Mani), who runs a “resale shop” somewhere in Chicago, has just sold a buffalo nickel he didn’t even know he had in his dusty, cracked display case to a well-heeled collector for $90. The sale sets the wheels in motion for Donny, his friend Teach (James Ridge) and his young assistant Bobby (APT newcomer Brendan Meyer) to plan a heist of the man’s coin collection while he is out of town.

But this is much less a caper comedy than an agonizing struggle of disappointment and unfulfilled need. Mamet’s profane poetry plumbs the depths of his characters’ frustrations and misunderstandings. Teach’s overwrought, often hilarious invective lays bare the intellectual shallowness and emotional agony each character undergoes.

Fans of the Chicago playwright will recognize the stop-start staccato of the play’s action, while those unfamiliar with Mamet may be bowled over by the play’s emotional brutality.

Director Kenneth Albers whips the scenario to a fine froth mostly, through the energy of Teach, a small-time hustler and petty criminal whose philosophical pretentions explore deeper themes. Teach is also a career-defining performance for APT company member Ridge.

Best known for his classical turns, from Shakespeare’s Shylock to Charles Dickens in Dickens in America, Ridge has always been one of APT’s most malleable performers. Clad by costume designer Anne Murphy in cheap plaid bellbottoms and a beaten leather jacket, Ridge’s Teach is a study in mannerisms and attitude, a constantly moving manic often bordering on hysteria and bringing the most mundane moments to a roiling boil.

Teach defends the pending crime as one more instance of the American Dream of free enterprise, a concept he both disdains and clings too, even though the dream has long ago abandoned him.

“Without this we’re just savage shitheads in the wilderness, sitting around some vicious campfire,” Teach espouses.

From the way the action unfolds, it doesn’t look like the characters in American Buffalo have evolved far beyond the campfire. And Ridge must be truly exhausted after each performance.

As Donny, Mani is the master of all he surveys, which in this case is a junk shop cluttered with a remarkable amount of cultural detritus, empty beer bottles, playing cards and all manner of castoffs assembled by scenic designer Liz Freese. Donny is the steady, if reluctant hand on the helm of the ensuing chaos, and his junk shop backdrop presents a suitable visual for reflecting the cultural depths in which the characters have become mired.

As Bobby, who may or may not be a junkie, Meyer falls a bit short in the presence of the two APT veterans. As Donny’s protégé and Teach’s foil, the character has a smaller, but no less vital role that Meyer often seems reluctant to fill. Thanks to voice and text coach Christine Adaire, Mani and Ridge have both mastered the classic Chicago accent. Yet Meyer, who is from Chicago, shows little trace of it.

Still, the three performers generally work well together in the emotionally difficult web that Mamet spins. The characters never arrive at their goal, because they never get going. If art represents life, as critics often like to think, American Buffalo paints a particularly difficult one — a narrative soiled with streaks and smears that will seem all too familiar to many in the audience.

No doubt that was Mamet’s intention.

American Buffalo continues in repertory at APT’s Touchstone Theatre through Nov. 8. For play dates and ticket information, go to americanplayers.org.