“American Buffalo” on Broadway

In 2001, I served on a grand jury. At one point, an ADA played for us a recording from a wiretap. It was a conversation between two members of a violent drug gang. One was assigning the other to kill the girlfriend of someone who had displeased him somehow. (The ADA assured us that the police spirited the woman to safety.) As part of the conversation, the boss told the would-be killer the address of his scheduled victim. It was somewhere in a remote area of Brooklyn. They got into a debate about how to get there. And they started arguing about directions, which roads might be clogged with traffic, how to deal with one-way streets in the neighborhood and the like. It went on for five minutes, and the debate got heated. They started calling each other names and questioning each other’s intelligence. We on the grand jury started to crack up. The ADA tried to keep a straight face, until it got too much for him, too, and he started to laugh.

These guys were obviously dangerous. They were also incredibly stupid. Were they more dangerous because they were stupid? Or did their stupidity somehow mute their dangerousness?

I couldn’t help but notice the close resemblance of this dialogue to passages in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

I used to be friendly with David back when we were both getting started on the Chicago theater scene. Second City influenced both of us. David had worked there as a busboy and, to my eye and ear, Sexual Perversity in Chicago is rather like a Second City show with a plot. And I couldn’t help but be influenced myself because I spent three years writing a book about the place, Something Wonderful Right Away. (Lanford Wilson told me he was also influenced by the nights he spent there; he incorporated a salute to Severn Darden into one of his plays.)

I can’t remember how I met David, but it must have been around 1975, because he was the reason I went to the opening night of the St. Nicholas Theater, a company he co-founded in Chicago. The show? American Buffalo. It had started as a second stage production of the Goodman and it was remounted with two of the original cast at St. Nicholas. The space was as narrow as a banana. The cast included Mike Nussbaum as Teach, JJ Johnson as Don (the play is dedicated to him) and WH Macy as the kid. I came out of it thinking it was a darn good American take on Harold Pinter. Later, David and Pinter would become close. I believe I’m correct that Glengarry Glen Ross is dedicated to Pinter, and Pinter directed some of David’s stuff in London.

I remember once having a conversation with David about Buffalo. He asked me, “What do you think it’s about?” I said that I thought it was a response to Watergate; the same kinds of rationalizations for illegal crap we heard on the Watergate tapes were invoked by Teach and Donny, but, because they have less access to college-educated language, the bullshit is more evident. He seemed to like that.

One of the great virtues of the very good current production is that it’s set in the almost-round (there’s a path at the west end of the stage through the front door) so that we feel as if we’re almost in the shop with the guys. This is considerably more effective than playing it in proscenium (thought it’s Ulu Grosbard’s proscenium production starring Robert Duvall that remains my favorite). Long-time Mamet associate Neil Pepe choreographs his actors precisely around the colorful trash with which designer Scott Pask has filled Donny’s shop. At times, Sam Rockell as Teach seems to be bouncing from prop to prop, looking for something that will answer a need he can’t articulate.

I think I remember David once saying that plays that presumed to teach audiences something were poppycock (or one of the other arcane words that would occasionally pop up in his conversation). I also think I remember him saying that plays should be “engines of delight.” A Google search doesn’t turn up confirmation of this, but the phrase stuck with me.  I gather from some of his more recent scripts that his thoughts on this may have evolved, since the past few I have seen seem to indeed have political agendas.

American Buffalo doesn’t presume to teach anything. Indeed Teach, the character, is a source of a steady stream of misinformation, self-justification, bad advice and paranoia. There is nothing to learn from him except the advisability of keeping distance between yourself and anyone like him.

I think there is little doubt that Teach and Donny voted for Trump (the kid didn’t vote at all). I must confess dismay to read of the David Mamet of today giving interviews defending Trump.

Plays sometimes separate themselves from their authors and attain lives independent of them.  Ya know?

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
This entry was posted in Broadway, Chicago theater, drama, improvisation, playwriting, Second City, theater, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “American Buffalo” on Broadway

  1. Joseph Millett says:

    The story goes that when Mamet wrote “Glengarry”, he wasn’t sure it was a real play. He allegedly sent it to Pinter (who he knew only slightly) to get feedback. Pinter’s response was to arrange for the National to produce it. It may be an apocryphal story, but it’s one Mamet told on more than one occasion…

  2. dgsweet says:

    I heard he showed an early draft to Ulu Grosbard and Ulu expressed doubts about the exposition. He never worked with Ulu again, which is a shame since Ulu’s BUFFALO is the one I measure all others by.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s