On Stage: ‘Buffalo’ is no longer a driving force

The American dream runs dry in Theatre Exile’s ‘American Buffalo’.

‘The American dream’ could possibly be the most clichéd phrase in our culture. It was born in post-war America, perfected in the 1950s and has been endlessly discussed, developed and examined since. Theatre Exile’s American Buffalo, which opened April 14 at Plays & Players Theater, pulls the controversial ideal to pieces.

David Mamet’s well-known play is set in a dilapidated pawnshop in 1975. The audience follows shop-owner Don, played by Joe Canuso, and his scheme to steal rare buffalo nickels. The play examines the existential crises of ex-junkies and run-of-the-mill losers and brings the audience into a dog-eat-dog world.

Mamet made a name for himself in the late 1970s and 1980s by subjecting dismal characters to tough times and gritty drama. Stylistically, he created dialogue that was quick, repetitive and tense. His use of shock-value profanity created quite the stir back in the day yet feels like just another HBO drama now. Three-time Barrymore Award nominee Matt Pfeiffer directed this production of Buffalo and uses a classically Mamet-like, straightforward approach.

After opening on Broadway in 1977, American Buffalo launched Mamet’s career and was lauded by New York audiences.

Yet today, the drama doesn’t carry the relevance it once did. We’ve already seen the American dream gone awry. The recent Broadway revival, starring John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment, failed critically at the New York box office. Theatre Exile’s production tries to make the most of the legendary play but instead creates a confusing race to find purpose in the back alleys of America.

The production still maintains some of the urgency and danger it always has. Pete Pryor brings the sleazy role of Teach – originally played by Robert Duvall and later Al Pacino – to a new, boisterous level. His performance leaves the audience disturbed and wanting more. From the moment he busts through the shop door muttering a slew of profanities, it is obvious Pryor’s on a roll.

The same cannot be said of the two other actors in American Buffalo. Robert DaPonte’s innocent portrayal of ex-junkie Bobby is plain with a nonexistent back-story. Canuso, Theatre Exile’s producing artistic director, delivers a hard-to-believe performance as Don. The three men together are an unnatural hodge-podge. Their performances are so varied that it doesn’t seem likely that these characters could be connected. Pryor is the only one abrasive enough for Mamet but overwhelms the other performances.

The design of the production is detailed and ornate. Theatre Exile’s resident designer Matt Saunders’ set is cluttered with junk, from toasters to cuff links and everything in between. The costumes, designed by Alison Roberts, are dated with polyester and leather.

In keeping with Theatre Exile’s reputation for dark drama, this show certainly is haunting. But the inconsistent performances and barely relevant text make American Buffalo far from compelling.

Max McCormack can be reached at edwin.mccormack@temple.edu.

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