Saturday, March 26, 2016

Up and Out: 'American Buffalo' Proves Apt Way to Say Hello, Goodbye to Chicago's Second-Storied Mary-Arrchie Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

American Buffalo
by David Mamet
directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., Chicago
Thru April 17

Profiles, TimeLine, Redtwist, A Red Orchid, Signal, Steep, Strawdog, Jackalope, Gift, Porchlight, Shattered Globe, Raven, AstonRep, NightBlue, Artistic Home, Eclipse, Pegasus Players, Next, About Face, House, Bailiwick.

These are just some of the storied "storefront" theater companies, present and past, that I've patronized, which--along with somewhat larger local troupes/theaters like Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court, Victory Gardens, Lookingglass, Northlight, etc., regional musical theater houses such as Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Theater Aurora, Theater at the Center in Munster and Mercury Theater, and abundant Broadway (and Pre-Broadway) tours stopping in the Loop--make Chicago perhaps the best, or at least deepest, theater town in the world. (And believe me, I love New York and London, but don't know if their magnificence equally expands far beyond Broadway and the West End.)

But though I have been going to theaters such as those above since the beginning of the 21st century, until Thursday night I had never ascended the steps leading to the Mary-Arrchie Theatre, a quintessential Chicago storefront theater even though it actually resides on the second floor, above a convenience store in Lakeview.

Mary-Arrchie is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary season, but also, regrettably, its last.

The well-worn building in which it resides--and the entire block, which also houses the Strawdog Theatre--is slated to be redeveloped, and M-A founder/artistic director Richard Cotovsky announced last fall that losing their lease will bring his company to an end.

Cotovsky was quoted by the Tribune's Chris Jones as saying:
"It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It will take the weight off my back. We struggled and we fought to do what we thought was best. And now I can look back and say, ‘Wow, we did all that.’"
Nonetheless, even if not symbolically or ruefully, Mary-Arrchie is going out by spewing a whole lot of profanity.

Of the David Mamet variety, within American Buffalo, a still quite resonant allegory on working class discontent, set--rather appropriately--in a Chicago storefront.

I have seen the 3-man play three previous times, including with Cotovsky playing the role of Donny Dubrow, as he does here, at the Raven Theatre in 2006. That same year, I had seen the originator of the Donny role--J.J. Johnston--in a staged reading at the Goodman alongside the remarkable Mike Nussbaum, and also caught a 2010 Steppenwolf production with Tracy Letts, Francis Guinan and Patrick Andrews.

This somewhat explains, or at least rationalizes, why even in feeling that I should get to Mary-Arrchie before it becomes extinct, I hadn't until the run of American Buffalo was extended, as it's now been twice. A discount ticket via Goldstar also helped prompt action.

I very much enjoyed my pilgrimage, which involved eating at the somewhat similarly named El Mariachi nearby, seeing the honorary Richard Cotovsky Way street sign, climbing the stairs filled with posters of past productions--including the perennial Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins--and noting the Howlin' Wolf LPs for sale in the lobby, presumably representing the recorded blues music enveloping the current play.

I believe Mark Vallarta (Teach) and Spenser Davis (Bobby) were just joining Cotovsky in the performance I saw, following Stephen Walker and Rudy Galvan playing the roles for most of the run; last minute rehearsals could be heard before the house was opened. (And with Mamet's incendiary language, it sounded like an argument one wouldn't dare interrupt.)

With as much to appreciate in subtext as at the surface level, American Buffalo can be challenging to optimize, and all three actors merit considerable credit for fine work, which in the case of Vallarta and Davis should only get stronger with a bit more acclimation.

Donny is the proprietor of a resale shop, and set designer John Holt has ensured that the stage is abundantly stuffed with interesting junk.

The entire two-act, two-hour play takes place in the same setting with Donny speaking with his young gofer Bobby and/or cantankerous poker pal Teach throughout, with frequent references to the unseen Ruthie, Grace, Fletcher and a store customer who becomes the planned prey in a low-grade robbery scheme, sparked by his purchase of an American Buffalo nickel.

You can undoubtedly find more astute takes on Mamet's underlying themes, but I see American Buffalo as a snapshot of the hardscrabble underbelly of America--and yes, Chicago--in which friendship and duplicity, distrust and loyalty, desperation and perseverance, day-to-day dignity and criminality, small talk and scheming, etc., etc., all go hand-in-hand.

The beautifully disheveled Cotovsky makes it seem as though the role of Donny was written for him, and Davis handles the Bobby role with aplomb, making him feel unsophisticated but not slow, as often can unnecessarily be the case.

I like what Vallarta does with Teach, infusing more of a sense of low-key desperation than full-tilt combustibility, although this may also lend itself to the action onstage never quite bristling, and then exploding, with quite the force it probably should (though the stagehands who must clean up and reset the scenery every night may strongly disagree).

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.
Actors pictured C and R were not in the performance I attended.
But even though they may have been a bit more finely calibrated over time by the previous actors, and conceivably soon will be by Vallarta and Davis alongside Cotovsky, never did the portrayals feel less than real.

And seeing American Buffalo in the setting I did made if feel even more appropriate as a requiem for the type of Chicago theater company that I wholeheartedly embrace.

I'm sorry I never got to Angel Island, as the theater is named, previously--and won't again. 

But as Richard Cotovsky--who Chris Jones notes is a pharmacist by day--goes on his self-named way with numerous estimable colleagues, I'm glad I got the chance to say both hello and goodbye, and now also thanks, to Mary-Arrchie.

Still, it's always sad to see one of Chicago's most uncompromising cultural institutions go the way of the buffalo.

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