Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Woolly Mamet Endures Splendidly

Play Review

American Buffalo by David Mamet
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

When brilliance reveals itself via backstreet whispers rather than rooftop exhortations--metaphorically speaking--it is considerably harder to discern or appreciate. Such is the case with David Mamet's 1975 drama, American Buffalo, which I enjoyed more through Steppenwolf's excellent current production than I had in past viewings of the play or the movie that was made from it.

Especially for someone who first came to know and appreciate Mamet through the clever plot twists of his movies, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner and Heist, as well as the overt pathos and profane linguistic barrage of Glengarry Glen Ross (both play & movie), American Buffalo can seem underwhelming and puzzling upon first viewing (and beyond). Though its rapid-fire, cantankerous dialogue makes the 100-minute, two-act play eminently watchable--especially when imbued with wonderful acting as delivered by Steppenwolf's trio of Tracy Letts, Francis Guinan and Patrick Andrews--it really doesn't seem like a whole lot of significance happens in Mamet's single-setting chronicle of small-time hustlers and their low-rent scheming.

Yet, particularly through my substantial exploration of foreign and independent films over the past few months, I've come to realize that quality storytelling need not follow the clearly delineated and definitively--often happily--concluded narratives common to many mainstream American movies, as well as novels, plays and other fictional works. We've--and certainly I've--come to expect plot lines to be fairly clear and obvious, and if done artfully enough, substantial pleasure and meaning can be derived from a somewhat straightforward delivery.

But life itself isn't always clear, obvious, happy or formulaic; rather it's pretty full of abstraction, ambiguity, struggle and tedium. The line between antagonist and protagonist is often blurred in real-life, and rather than shine in the spotlight, many of us just plug away on the fringes. So it shouldn't be so shocking or off-putting to see or read fictional works that similarly are a bit vague and whose significance cannot be clearly explained in a sound bite.

Of course, Mamet is too skilled a writer to describe American Buffalo as "stuff just happens." Clearly, a whole lot of talent is required to make a non-action packed narrative engaging and allegorical rather than insipid and inconsequential. And with Letts, a great actor in addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, channeling his inner-Johnny Fever to give the Teach character a much different take than I'd previously seen, accompanied by the always excellent Guinan and multi-talented Andrews (who I recently saw shine as the MC in Cabaret at Drury Lane), Steppenwolf's rendition of American Buffalo was altogether engrossing, even if still not entirely understood.

Though I'm sure there's a whole bunch of analysis out there that I can look up, I think the play is meant to be more about the characters themselves and their ramshackle scenarios rather than any precise reading of their activities. Regardless, I really liked it, and as it runs until Valentine's Day, you still have plenty of time to see it. Twice if need be.

Be aware that Steppenwolf puts 20 tickets on sale for $20 at 11:00am every day for that evening's performance, and also sells all remaining tickets for half-price one hour before curtain. So you can see a great show for far less than full price.

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