Talk the Talk, Wobble on the Walk

In the spring of 1977, Broadway fell in love with Little Orphan Annie and her cheery, the-sun-will-come-out-tomorrow philosophy. Had the comic strip inspiration for Annie been able to stroll the eight blocks downtown from the Alvin Theatre to take a seat in the Belasco, she would have had the pupils shocked back into her eyes. David Mamet's Broadway debut, a gritty production of American Buffalo, jolted theatergoers with its jarring profanities and its unflinching depiction of three petty criminals. Mamet thus established himself as a playwright with an impeccable ear for contemporary language and a talent for creating well-drawn characters -- attributes that also have colored his Glengarry Glen Ross (Pulitzer Prize-winner), Speed the Plow, and Oleanna. In its current hit-and-miss staging of his drama, Florida Playwrights' Theatre satisfactorily captures Mamet's documentary-style dialogue while obscuring his script's subtle character clues -- an understandable, if crippling, shortcoming, given the fact that the play's trio turns out to be all talk.

In the opening moments of American Buffalo, Chicago junk store owner Donny (John J. Hall) begins his morning by counseling his slow-witted assistant Bobby (John Manzelli), a dubiously reformed junkie who cooked his brains along with his heroin. Donny's admonition that "action talks, bullshit walks" turns out to be less a personal credo than a pep talk meant to prepare the two for their night's work of breaking and entering. Their mark is a coin collector who recognized a valuable buffalo-head nickel under the detritus in Donny's shop; although the man paid a fair price for the coin, he infuriated Donny with his informed assessment of the shop's inventory. Obsessed with stealing the coin as well as the rest of the man's collection, Donny enlists Bobby's help but later eases him out of the deal when his menacing poker buddy Walter "Teacher" Cole (Paul Thomas) catches wind of the caper and wants in on the action. While the two inept hoodlums continue to plan the robbery, Bobby embarks on his own caper to replace his boss's coin. In the end, neither plan gets off the ground because of the trio's growing mistrust of each other.

Standing beside the junk shop's American flag, the would-be crooks justify their scheme by explaining it away as an example of old-fashioned free enterprise. The play's punning title refers both to the coin and the hucksters' confused anything-to-get-ahead interpretation of the American dream. Like most of Mamet's works, American Buffalo takes the audience inside a relatively closed society by first sketching the terrain with arresting dialogue and then populating the landscape with selfish characters engaged in a cutthroat quest for power. Anyone who swam with the real estate sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross, peeked behind Hollywood's facade with the film industry hustlers in Speed the Plow, or was tested by the professor-versus-student mind games in Oleanna will recognize the coarse cheats in Don's Resale Shop. On the other hand, those attending their first Mamet play may wonder what all the fuss is about when they're confronted with incomplete portrayals that threaten to transform this intense sociological study into a larcenous Waiting for Godot.

John Manzelli lends a certain fragility to Bobby, turning him into a human puppy dog eager to please the boss who has befriended him; but the actor's slack-jawed expression and overall passivity undermine the ex-junkie's edgy unpredictability, meant to trigger his unnerved cohorts' suspicions of a double-cross. In a role played on Broadway by both Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, Paul Thomas easily handles the majority of his tricky dialogue, successfully incorporating the many obscenities into a natural part of Teacher's everyday speech. He ably connects with the rhythms of Mamet's language, as the punk's pent-up frustrations escape like steam through a tea kettle's whistle. If only the command Thomas demonstrates with his voice were extended to his arms: He frantically punctuates nearly all of his lines with distracting hand gestures, ultimately reducing Teacher's quiet menace to mere blowhard bullying. Hall is the cast's weakest link, turning in a performance that completely misses the complexity of the small businessman who bravely stands up to the intimidating Teacher -- refusing to allow the latter to insult his friends -- yet who is still driven to commit a crime to restore his own bruised ego.

Part of Hall's failure to bring a fully realized character to the stage rests with director Angela Thomas, who refuses to impose any interpretation on Mamet's work. Bobby is forgetful and always asking for money, but is he stupid or stoned? Is Teacher, who never mentions a job and is readily accepted into the robbery plans, a professional criminal or merely a dangerous loser who enjoys dominating his friends? Is it the lure of a quick profit or something deeper that fuels Donny's fixation with getting the coin back? And the question that resonates at the very foundation of the play: Are these guys neophyte thieves or a trio of pros having an off night? Mamet has often been accused of being profane, manipulative, and hard-hitting, but in Thomas's hands he becomes ambiguous, unfocused, and inconsequential.

The junk store's human oddities get better support from the realistic set, which overflows with castoffs. Doing double duty as actor and set designer, Paul Thomas fills the shop with an intriguing jumble of tarnished odds and ends. Not only does this serve as a fitting set for American Buffalo, it also acts as an apt metaphor for this as-is Mamet revival.

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