Business and friendship often make for a putrid mix, especially if the “business” in question is the kind where you need to put the word in quotes to make yourself understood. It’s hard enough to make friends with honest people. Friendship among thieves must be close to impossible.
It’s a matter of trust. If your friends make their living by lying and cheating, how will you know who to believe when it counts most?
A new production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo opened last weekend at the Vortex Theatre. Considered by many to be Mamet’s finest work, the play presents a deceptively simple story about a trio of small-time crooks struggling to make something of themselves. Under the direction of CNM theater professor Frank Melcori, this crew pulls together an enjoyable production centering around a mesmerizing, understated performance by veteran Albuquerque actor John Wylie.
The action all takes place in a grubby, low-rent antique store—let’s just call it a junk shop—owned by Don (Wylie). Before the play begins, a well-dressed customer walked into Don’s establishment and bought a buffalo nickel for $90. Don convinces one of his poker buddies, a young wannabe criminal named Bob (Rafael Bromberg), to find out where the customer lives so they can rob him of his coin collection when he leaves town.
Another poker buddy, Teach (Shangreaux Lagrave), learns of the plan and convinces Don that Bob is too inexperienced to carry out such a delicate job. So Don buys Bob out of the action, and the plan is reshuffled with disasterous (and violent) results.
Mamet is famous for the rhythmic naturalism of his dialogue, and he never hit that beat better than in American Buffalo. These characters engage in some majestic cussing, producing squeamishly filthy dialogue long before the likes of Quentin Tarantino began poeticizing the obscene trivialities of tough-guy speech. Don, Bobby and especially Teach spit out four-letter words with such verve they make smut feel like Shakespeare.
Although most of the really nasty profanity comes from Teach, Lagrave accompanied his bouts of dirty talk with gestures that were distractingly literal. When he talked about shoving something up his ass, for example, he made a motion of actually shoving that thing up his ass. Unnecessary. The language is enough. All he needs to do is spit it out there and let it flop around for a while like a gasping fish. We’ll get it. In every other respect, though, Lagrave had just the right psychopathic seediness for the part.
Bromberg’s role is the smallest of the bunch, but he plays a fine naive poseur. Still, the foundation for this production is Wylie, who puts in a rough, utterly believable performance as Don, by far the most complex character of the trio. Wylie’s shopkeeper crook is simultaneously scummy and sympathetic, a bad man with an enduring potential for redemption.
This play is supposed to say something profound about the nature of capitalism, but the message probably felt a lot fresher back in the ’70s. American Buffalo remains a pleasure to see because of the sheer audacity of Mamet’s language and the surprisingly tender portrayal of friendship buried underneath all the obscene bluster.
All three of these men are losers, bottom-feeders who desperately want to claw their way to the top of the mountain, but who lack the imagination to do so. It doesn’t stop them from trying, of course, and even though they might be lousy people—not to mention lousy thieves—you can’t help but take a shine to them.