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.
After an early opening two weeks ago with the Maria Irene Fornes/Robert Ashley opera Balseros, the twelfth International Hispanic Theatre Festival kicks into high gear this Friday with its first-ever production featuring projected English translations of Spanish dialogue. Venezuelan playwright Gilberto Pinto's Los Fantasmas de Tulemon (Tulemon's Ghosts) is one of six "Anglo-friendly" events in this year's 22-day festival, which comprises thirteen productions (from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Spain, the United States, and Uruguay), a daylong theater conference, a directors' forum, and a two-day actors' training workshop.
Presented by festival producer Teatro Avante, Los Fantasmas de Tulemón is directed by the Coral Gables-based company's producing artistic director -- and overall Hispanic Theatre Festival director -- Mario Ernesto Sanchez. "When Teatro Avante does a Cuban play, 99.9 percent of the audience is Cuban," Sanchez notes. "But when we do the festival we get the Brazilians, Chileans, and Argentineans. This year we want to see non-Spanish speakers."
In past efforts to snag such patrons, the festival tried a bilingual approach, offering a play on alternate nights -- first in English, then in Spanish. "If you heard Shakespeare in Spanish, you would pull your hair out," Sanchez moans. "A translation to English is just as awful." Equally problematic was the fest's attempt to stage productions using a technique practiced at the United Nations: simultaneous translations of dialogue into headphones worn by the audience. "The earphones break," Sanchez sighs, "and you have to hire a second set of actors."
On to take three -- projected translations. The supertitle approach was recently test-driven on local high school students, who attended midmorning presentations of Tulemon's Ghosts. "We have the slides above the stage, and so far it's working very well," Sanchez reports.
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The festival's Anglo-friendly lineup includes Brazil's Kao, which mixes theater, religious rituals, and dance in an exploration of Afro-Brazilian myths; Paraguay's Amar Go, a nonverbal look at love; E-Motions, a dance theater offering from Buffalo, New York; Argentina's tribute to tango singers, Che Tanguito; and the accessible-to-all-ages International Children's Day presentation of Chile's Viaje al Centro de la Tierra (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Most of Sanchez's hopes, however, rest somewhat uneasily on his own production.
"I would venture to say that Tulemon's Ghosts is not the best play to start the translation with," he admits. "Maybe we should have chosen [Federico Garcia] Lorca or something. The play is an epic written in a very cinematic way. It had 150 pages and 53 characters. Now it has 50 pages and fifteen characters portrayed by seven actors." When asked about the playwright's feelings regarding the script changes and planned supertitles, Sanchez laughs nervously and says, "He doesn't know what I've done. He said, 'Mario, I trust you. The play is yours.' He's coming to see it. I don't know, he may leave here with my head in his hands."
For more information on International Hispanic Theatre Festival events, call the festival hotline at 445-8877 or see our "Calendar Listings."
American Buffalo. Written by David Mamet; directed by Angela Thomas; with John J. Hall, John Manzelli, and Paul Thomas. Through June 15. For more information call 954-925-8123 or see "Calendar Listings.