Directing American Buffalo

Directing AMERICAN BUFFALO has been an artistic thrill on many levels.

First, there’s working with three exciting actors and an enthusiastic designer all of whom are dedicated to creating art.

Then there’s working with THEATER ON THE EDGE, a fledgling company intent on producing provocative theater. It’s tucked into an intimate 31-seat venue at Truthful Acting Studios, where students learn technique developed by the venerable Sanford Meisner.

Then…well…then, there’s David Mamet and his classic 1975 AMERICAN BUFFALO, an award winning, play exceptionally rich in substance and style.

In mounting this show, which is set in the early 1970s in a Chicago junk shop, the team at Theater on the Edge has gone for heightened realism. That means, in part: Vintage elements, many of the objects actually from Chicago; a complex sound design evoking mood and environment; deliberate pacing and visual composition; and three emotionally charged characters who are petty crooks living on the fringe and struggling to survive yet another day. Their gambit for this day is to steal a rare American Buffalo nickel.

Typically, a director and her cast will discover layer after layer in the play’s characters. And in David Mamet’s AMERICAN BUFFALO, that adventure of discovery is like some wild amusement park ride that never ends: Motivation crystalizes in one word; intent pivots in one pause; a deceptively simple line reveals a character’s troubling, complex history; a throw away aside foreshadows something sinister.

And then there is the humor, buried into the buffoonery and heartbreaking poignancy of Don, Bobby and Teach, trapped like the refuse around them in Donny’s Resale Shop. Don, the proprietor, is the father figure trying to help Bobby, a pathetic junkie who can’t even get a food order right. Teach is like a shark, always moving, always on the lookout for the next mark. Like a threatened sibling, Teach manipulates Don’s regard for Bobby. All the while, the notion of “business” looms, blurring the line between corporate and criminal.

So, you get into these characters. You unravel the deeper stories and thematic subtext. You discover relationships bordering on the biblical, in this case motifs of the Prodigal Son and Cain and Abel. Then, you realize the ride’s not over.

There’s the little case of Mamet’s use of “profane poetry.”

Much of his dialogue is written in iambic meter (daDUM, da DUM, da DUM), and sometimes specifically iambic pentameter (five beats per line, as in Shakespeare). You go along with that comforting beat and suddenly, just to throw you off balance, Mamet hits you upside the head with use of trochaic meter (DAdum, DAdum, DAdum). Then there’s the use of repetition, alliteration and assonance.

As American theater scholar Christopher Bigsby writes in The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet:

“The rhythm both itself contains a meaning and, like everything
else, serves the plot, as does the language which may seem to
shape itself into poetry, sculpted arias, but is, in fact, fully
functional in terms of forwarding action and thereby revealing
character or vice versa.”

So, yeah, this is complex, heady stuff. As such, it is rich and like manna from heaven for any theater artist and patron.