Bay Area Theater Preview: AMERICAN BUFFALO (Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley)

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by Tony Frankel on June 14, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The dialogue you will hear and the people you will meet in Aurora Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo have both become hallmarks for this prolific writer. The Duck Variations (1972) and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) proclaimed Mamet as a new voice in American theater, but it is American Buffalo (1975) that exposed the magnitude of his originality. As in many later plays, his characters are uneducated and incoherent users of slang or street-wise rhetoric. If you’ve never seen a Mamet play before, the dazzling violence of the language, precisely crafted for effect, will jolt and astound you, as if you are listening to a rough American concerto. The dialects he has created for his characters have been 35225_review10so influential that they you can hear his voice not just in other writers (The Sopranos, for instance) but in real life salesman, politicians, and street toughs.

Mamet molds his terse, vulgar, cynical, edgy dialogue with such distinction that it has come to be known as “Mamet Speak.” Many also refer to it as “profane poetry.” He often uses italics and quotation marks to highlight particular words and to draw attention to his characters’ frequent manipulation and deceitful use of language. His characters often interrupt one another, their sentences trail off unfinished, and their dialogue overlaps. Moreover, certain expressions and figures of speech are deliberately misrepresented to show that the character is not paying close attention to every detail of his dialogue (e.g., “or so forth” instead of “and so forth”).

Closing Aurora Theatre Company’s 22nd season, American Buffalo is set during one long day in Chicago. Three small-time crooks with high ambition and low morals make plans to rob a man of his valuable coin collection, including what they believe to be an extremely valuable Buffalo nickel. As the day goes on, paranoia builds, motivations change, and loyalties shift, with characters wielding words like weapons 31950_review9to intimidate and manipulate each other. A little out of luck and way out of their league, when the con goes awry, it’s every man for himself.

The Student/Teacher, Mentor/Innocent, Parent/Child relationship is important in many of Mamet’s plays. In American Buffalo, Don, the owner of a junkshop, looks out for Bobby, a kid with a troubled past who runs errands and wants to do right by Don. The third role is Teach, Don’s poker buddy. Three characters, one set, and a phone. That’s it and that’s more than enough. Until the very end almost nothing physical happens. Language is all. A recounted pivotal event leads to scheming, second guessing, plotting, intimidation and finally truth and regret. The language is perpetually performative, meaning that characters are not only passively describing a given reality, but they are, in turn, creating the reality they are describing.

Tony-nominated for her work on Broadway’s Quilters, Barbara Damashek returns to Aurora after helming productions of Fat Pig and Private Jokes, Public Places. She has also directed productions for South Coast Rep, Trinity Rep, Yale Rep, Mark 23027_review11Taper Forum, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others. One of San Francisco’s greatest assets, the great James Carpenter plays Teach. Previous Aurora productions include The Master Builder, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming; he is now in his twelfth year as an Associate Artist at California Shakespeare Theater; and he has appeared in over 30 productions at Berkeley Rep. Paul Vincent O’Connor, who appeared in Aurora’s production of Death Defying Acts, and toured nationally with the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County, plays Don. Rafael Jordan, who has been seen at A.C.T. and Actors Theatre of Louisville among others, makes his Aurora debut as Bobby.

photos by David Allen

American Buffalo
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St in Berkeley
previews begin June 13 with official opening on June 19, 2014
thereafter, Tues at 7; Wed – Sat at 8; Sun at 2 and 7
ends on July 20, 2014
for tickets, call 510.843.4822 or visit Aurora Theatre

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