David Mamet’s profanely eloquent play, “American Buffalo,” still as repulsive yet strangely attractive as ever after 38 years, has opened at the Irish Classical Theatre Company. It’s the troupe’s first foray into “Mamet-speak” and it is up to it.
The night opens on Don’s Resale Shop, life’s hand-me-downs on display, hanging here, piled there, dented and bruised, someone’s one-time treasure or heirloom dusty or perhaps broken. No “Antique Roadshow” surprises here. In other words: junk.
Then there’s the human detritus: proprietor Don, always waiting for that Picasso behind the velvet Elvis; his “gofer,” crackhead Bobby; and Walter “Teach” Cole, street survivor, volatile, a walking, talking poster boy for anger management. Don spends his days hoping for a cash cow, Bobby scrounges and runs errands for drug money and Teach just hangs around, railing, ranting against people and things. “The world is lies,” he spouts. “There is no law, there is no right and wrong, there is no friendship.” Teach is not fun to be around and for all his talk of loyalty, he is essentially a snake. These are dented and discarded people – add pathetic to the mix – occupying Don’s Resale Shop.
The trouble starts when Don sells an apparent vintage American buffalo nickel for much less than it’s worth. When he realizes he’s been scammed, Don seeks to get the coin back, first recruiting the hapless Bobby but then enlisting the eavesdropping Teach to burglarize the customer’s apartment. Plans and preparation prove inept, vaudevillian almost, and there are hints of double-cross before the arrival of menace in the play’s late going. The ICTC has much experience with the works of Harold Pinter, where everyday events can turn deadly and seemingly harmless relationships go awry. Those enigmatic Pinter moments have readied them for Mamet and a riveting “American Buffalo.”
The story is told in Mamet’s customary vulgar street-talk style with inventive combinations – theater critic Ben Brantley once said that the flying and frequent curses were “like a stink bomb at a garden party” – but the jargon is most likely armor against the brutal urban lives of these three desperate and marginal would-be thieves, none of whom have many redeeming traits.
Well, Don does care, in a paternal way, about Bobby. “Never go without breakfast,” Don coaches. And he’s going to buy the kid vitamins. He’s an enabler, though.
Brian Cavanagh, in a rare directing role, loves this play. These are his people, he says, and he admits that “Mamet’s language is my language.” Cavanagh has insisted that the economical speech patterns, the fragmented or unfinished sentences, the pulsating unrelenting cadence, the “scatological buckshot,” as the famed Jack Kroll once described Mamet’s work, remain intact and nonstop. He has assembled just the cast to do that: Christian Brandjes, always precise, an invaluable pacesetter, as Don; Jose Rivera, sweetly strung-out, runny-nosed Bobby; and Brian Mysliwy, as Teach, mesmerizing from opening moments to final meltdown.
Mysliwy, in a departure from his manic and acclaimed comic performances at ICTC (“The Servant of Two Masters,” “La Bete”) is raw, real and rough, a champion of greed, a threat, a bully and a coward at once, always pacing and prowling, always alert for “a piece of the action.” To Mysliwy falls the task of underscoring Mamet’s incredible lessons here of the power of language. As Teach, he makes the night a seminar; unforgettable.
The symbolic, theme-setting set is by Ron Schwartz; it’s admirable work.