As Doomed as the American Buffalo

It's all about a nickel.

American Buffalo, the 1975 play that made David Mamet a star and might well remain the American playwright's best work, is a simple tale of a heist gone wrong. Three losers in a Chicago junk shop conspire to steal a buffalo nickel that is potentially worth a lot of money. The caper is about business, or as one of them says, about "common sense, experience, and talent." That the conspirators -- the slimeball, the thief, and the junkie -- lack such qualities is the play's central irony. That they reflect what transpires on the lower slopes of capitalism is, however, what makes the play timeless -- as timeless as the idea of the American dream. This timelessness is far from obvious in the intermittently effective Alliance Theatre Lab production at the Main Street Playhouse in Miami Lakes, directed with the best of intentions by Adalberto J. Acevedo. But American Buffalo is also an exercise in acting, and at least one cast member, the promising Nick Velkov, is definitely worth watching.

The plot is thin, and much of the play's impact depends on atmosphere. Mamet's language is distinctive, a curious blend of deceptive cadences, pauses, and just plain filth: The curious speech delivered by his lowlifes suggests a potty-mouth Damon Runyon on speed. Vulgarity dates quickly though. This is not the place to bemoan the fact that the aggressive scatology and staccato expletives of American Buffalo are not as shocking as they were 30 years ago when the play was new. But it is a fact. Language this inarticulate, violent, and vulgar is the common coin of pop culture today. Still, American Buffalo shocks on a deeper level.

Mamet's machine-gun volley of four-letter words -- not including life -- is pathetic. It's also very funny, although Acevedo's production misses the humor in Act One and consequently much of the contrasting sense of danger in Act Two. What remains is the sad spectacle of three desperate men working at odds with one another. Their business is an illusion, and real profit will never be theirs to make. Written before 9/11, before Hurricane Katrina, before Halliburton's obscene profits, even before Reaganomics came and went and came back with a vengeance, American Buffalo is a cruel and clear portrait of the American working classes who continue to vote against their own economic interests without any idea of what they're bargaining for.

"Free enterprise," proclaims Velkov's Teach in a breathless riff of psychopathic enthusiasm, is all about "the freedom of the individual to embark on any fucking course that he sees fit to secure an honest chance of making a profit. Am I so out of line on this? Does this make me a commie? The country's founded on this, Don. You know this." Teach, Don, and Bobbie -- three losers devoid of compassion -- hope to be rich. Mamet shows with cruel precision that their hopes will never be realized. Their humanity, perhaps ours too, is as doomed as the American buffalo.

None of this is easy to pull off onstage. Rachel Finley's set is appropriately cluttered but looks too clean to be a resale shop. It's also not an ideal space in which to act out the angry demolition scene at the play's end: A chair landed a little too close to somebody in the front row at one performance, after which Velkov limited Teach's tantrum to throwing stuff in a tidy little pile upstage. Acevedo's direction, perhaps unavoidably, misses much of the play's fragility and has the feel of a promising workshop. The shameless artifice of the play's language -- copied in everything from television's NYPD Blue and CSI to Mamet's own later works -- can easily turn into a license for bad acting.

At the Main Street Playhouse, too often the actors speak their lines with the proper rhythms and meaning but fail to connect with each other. As the owner of Don's Resale Shop, Jack Frank Sigman manages only to hint at the older man's ambivalent relationship with the younger Bobbie. As Bobbie the recovering junkie, Daniel Lugo is overtaxed by Mamet's language and brings to life only a fraction of his character's miserable soul. Velkov, who will be seen next in GableStage's Brooklyn Boy, is something else. His Teach, granted, misses the monumental impact the obscenities of his entrance should carry. But his frustration seems real, and there is dazzling virtuosity in his frantic eruption of paranoia, impotence, and hate that bubble to the surface in Act Two. Briefly, powerfully, the man was scary.

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