When it comes to chronicling “the American experience” on stage, few playwrights have a mastery of the form. One of those masters is David Mamet, and the KC Rep is now producing one of his better-known works, American Buffalo.
Taking place entirely inside a junk store, the plot of American Buffalo is deceptively simple: The owner, Don, feels like he was tricked when he sold a rare coin to a customer. Resentful about it, he and his mentally slow assistant Bobby make plans to tail the man and steal the coin back. But Don’s friend Teach thinks it’s a bad idea to trust Bobby to do the job and convinces Don to let him do it instead.
From this core premise, Mamet holds a magnifying glass to the American underclass. The three men preach about how important it is to keep friends separate from business because mixing them can cause hard feelings. However, the only friends they have are ones that they also do business with. Moreover, despite their strong feelings and grand plans, they have a problem actually getting anything done. They use macho, violent bravado to disguise the fact that they really don’t know what the hell is going on around them, and they don’t feel in control of much at all.
Mamet’s scripts take some getting used to. He writes dialogue that is sparse, with short rapid sentences. It’s not quite like the way people talk in real life. He is also known for using a lot of strong language in his plays, and this show is no different. But the raw dialogue feels genuine — this is the way these men speak because it’s the way they think. To have them speak in more polite terms would feel exceedingly unrealistic.
The character of Don is played by Robert Elliot, and I really enjoyed watching him. It’s like he just slid into the role of the bitter shop owner like a pair of worn leather boots, and he knew each nick and scrape on them., His body language — more, even, than his speaking — just exudes the effects of years of being forgotten, trampled on, and treated unfairly. Brian Paulette is funny as the over-stressed low-life Teach, and he does a great job of showing his desperation for a piece of other people’s action. But it is Robbie Tann who steals the show as Bob, the simple-minded young man who tries to follow Don’s lessons as best as he can. The way he used his body and the personal space of others made him mesmerizing every time he was on the stage.
Speaking of the stage, this is one of the most realistic sets I’ve ever seen. They actually built a junk shop on stage, with shelves and display cases stuffed with hundreds of things that you would actually find. The three characters wandered the space just as they would if it was a real store on some forgotten street in some nameless city.
Mamet explains that his plays are about the ways in which the American dream is essentially a process of exploiting others, and how we have reached a point where “the dream has nowhere to go, so it turns on itself.” And that’s exactly what American Buffalo is about. Although the title is ostensibly about a rare coin, it can also be seen as an expression of how the characters try to lie and fool each other in the pursuit of what they feel they deserve. Mamet unpacks the rage of many in the American underclass who feel that they were never given their fair share of the success they were promised.
If you need a frothy, enjoyable evening out, this play is probably not what you are looking for. But as an insightful, angry, and even depressing look at the deteriorating American dream, then you need to look no further than the KC Rep.
American Buffalo runs through May 19 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Tickets are available at 816-235-2700 or kcrep.org.