Review: “American Buffalo” in Carbondale
Ryan Summerlin July 3, 2014
If You Go…
presented by Thunder River Theatre
July 3, 7:30 p.m.
July 4, 2 p.m.
July 5, 7:30 p.m.
Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale
Though the scale of the story is small and the stakes in the plot are low, David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” takes devastating aim at the American Dream. Thunder River Theatre’s production of the 1975 modern stage classic, running through Saturday, hits its target and manages to score some laughs while it’s at it.
Set in a single day in a Chicago junk shop, the stage is packed with dusty clutter, and the three men in it seem as worthless as those second-hand goods. These scheming, small-time crooks, Donny (Owen O’Farrell), Teach (Lon Winston) and Bobby (Nick Garay), plot to steal a coin collection. But before long it’s evident that what they’re hoping to snatch is some dignity.
Their dialogue is profanity-laced but poetic, and the cast handles the complex linguistic twists without a hitch. The harsh language and slimy characters could easily alienate an audience if mishandled, but director Valerie Haugen doesn’t drown out the play’s comedy with its high drama and dirty words. The men’s incompetence and their farcical overuse of four-letter words hit many comical notes, nudged along by their often circular logic and lines that could have been written by Yogi Berra (“If I could get some of that stuff you were interested, would you be interested?”).
Winston’s Teach is a greasy and volatile know-it-all con man, fuming about slights from others and visibly simmering over the many grudges he’s harboring.
“The only way to teach these people is to kill them,” he says, half-seriously, at one point, fuming about a woman he ran into in the neighborhood diner.
As Donny and Bobby plot their caper, Teach inserts himself into the plan, and aims to force Bobby out.
O’Farrell plays the desperate shop owner, Donny, with heart, spitting out his lines in a Tony Soprano delivery, but his Donny communicates a compassion for Bobby that could easily get lost in a lesser performance. Bobby, the low man on the trio’s totem pole, is played by Garay with little complexity — he’s a wide-eyed and childlike innocent, a bad liar and an easy mark for Teach’s bullying.
Like most get-rich-quick schemes and shortcuts to the American Dream, the men’s big score begins to fall apart. From the start, the play suggests, it probably was as doomed as the buffalo in the title and on the nickel that moves the story into motion. But it ends with two apologies and a hug, and a feeling that the only chance guys like this have to survive the rat race is to carry each other along the way.