American Buffalo, by the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Jewish) playwright David Mamet, is not for the faint of heart.
There is profanity, crude urban language, shouting matches and at least one volatile outburst — things that were not commonly seen on the American stage in 1976, when the play made its Chicago premiere. While we have since come to expect coarse language and unsavory characters in films, television shows and theatrical productions, American Buffalo still packs an unexpected wallop, making it well worth the while of theatergoers who are not afraid of a little bad language.
The play, directed by Jewish Ensemble Theatre Executive Director Chris Bremer, runs at JET Theatre through Dec. 10. It centers around three characters: Donny Dubrow (Lynch R. Travis), the owner of a resale/junk shop in a downtrodden part of town; Bobby (Shane O’Connor), a junkie and wannabe apprentice to Don; and Walter “Teach” Cole (Matthew David), a small-time neighborhood thug with delusions of grandeur and dreams of escaping to a better life.
All three characters have been beaten down by their circumstances and their own unfortunate choices, yet they long for their piece of the American dream — without regard to the consequences for themselves or anyone who gets in their way. After Don decides he accepted too low a price for a Buffalo nickel a customer discovered in his overrun display case, the three men plan to steal the nickel back while the customer is presumably out of town.
From casing the house to planning the actual break-in, the would-be criminals continually get in their own way, stymied by their own ineptness and competing egos, especially where Don and Teach are concerned. It is the characters’ pre-robbery interactions and misguided attempts to recover what they have rationalized as rightfully theirs that comprise the real drama in this play.
Mamet is known for his edgy, shotgun-style dialogue, and these actors are definitely up to the challenge. This is especially true for Teach, who swaggers around the stage in a burgundy satin shirt, railing against the wrongs that have been done to him by his so-called friends and society in general. David portrays him as a “legend in his own mind” with a volatile streak that perpetually simmers beneath his words.
O’Connor has the shaky demeanor typical of someone who has been ravaged by drugs at an early age, and the timidity of a young man who knows he is out of his league with Don and Teach. As Don, Travis seems to be the most level-headed, but his willingness to go along with Teach’s ill-planned scheme shows that he is as desperate as his counterparts.
Sound design is by Matt Lira, who is also the stage manager, with lighting by Neil Koivu. Costumes are by Mary Copenhagen, with properties by production stage manager Harold Jurkewicz.
The set, by Elspeth Williams, is a sight to behold. The entire play, which is comprised of two acts, takes place inside Don’s resale/junk shop, and the names of familiar Hamtramck street names can be seen through the rain-soaked windows. The stage is packed with the stuff of yesteryear: wooden crates filled with VHS tapes, an electric menorah with some of the lights missing, boxes of vinyl record albums, a juke box and a wood-trimmed aqua velvet settee.
In an alcove at the back of the shop, a feather boa hangs from a dartboard, and the walls are lined with walkers and an assortment of crutches. There seems to be no order to the way the merchandise is displayed; indeed, the shop is as haphazard as the lives of the men who inhabit it.
David Mamet’s American Buffalo runs through Dec. 10 at the JET Theatre at the West Bloomfield JCC. $44. (248) 788-2900; jetperforms.com.