Encore Michigan

JET’s ‘American Buffalo’ set in Hamtramck is a must see

Review November 20, 2017 Patrice Nolan

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich.— The Jewish Ensemble Theatre has pulled out all the stops for its explosive production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

JET Executive Director Christopher Bremer relocates the 1975 play to a down-and-out Hamtramck business district, where Donny Dubrow (Lynch R. Travis) is sole proprietor of “Don’s Resale Store.” It’s a grimy place stuffed with unloved junk – boxes of VCR tapes, walkers and crutches, dingy holiday decorations, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of failed lives.

When the play opens, Donny is lecturing a nervous young man, his gopher Bobby (Shane O’Connor), about what it takes to be a successful business person. Bobby keeps apologizing, and we figure out that he has failed to keep tabs on a man Donny is interested in. Donny seems angry – but he actually assumes a fatherly attitude toward Bobby, explaining that he just wants Bobby to learn the finer points of free enterprise. Donny urges Bobby to pattern himself after their friend “Fletch” – a shrewd man of business who fleeced everyone at the previous night’s poker game. Donny also insists that Bobby start taking better care of himself, handing Bobby money to go across the street and bring back something for their breakfast.

That’s when Walt “Teach” Cole (Matthew David) rushes in – possessed by a blind rage over an imagined slight by another poker acquaintance. He ricochets around the room, firing colorful profanity and vitriolic slurs in every direction. Indignant, he cannot believe anyone would stoop to insulting such a stand-up guy as himself – all the why cursing unimaginable tortures on his “friends.” The intensity of his anger – and his conviction that people are out to get him – is all out proportion.

This is Mamet in true form – the characters never articulate exactly what they mean. They start to speak – but then resort to gestures and profanity to imply what they are reluctant or unable to say. This has the clever effect of pulling the audience into the act of creation, where we tie together the threads of information Mamet is feeding us until we grasp the implied narrative. In the case of Teach, we quickly see past his words to understand that he is insecure, unstable, and desperate for something to change his luck. He is enraged about life – furious that he cannot find a way to lay hands on the good things enjoyed by other (less deserving) people.

At first, it seems that the men are involved in a potential piece of business that will bring them some much needed money. It involves getting the best of someone who purchased a valuable Buffalo nickel from Donny – someone they are convinced tried to cheat him. They plan to even the score. What soon becomes clear, however, is that their idea of “American enterprise” is to break into that customer’s home as soon as he leaves for the weekend and steal back the prize nickel as well as the guy’s entire coin collection.

Teach schools Donny on how the job needs to go down – icing Bobby out of the gig and flying into an indignant tirade when Donny insists on including his friend Fletch. Teach mocks Donny for his fatherly interest in Bobby and loyalty to Fletch, boasting that he is too smart to let friendship interfere with business. As the play progresses, Teach becomes increasingly paranoid and manages to convince Donny that Bobby and Fletch are conspiring against them.

Without spoiling the conclusion of the play, it’s safe to assume that things do not end well. How can they? Donny is looking for the American Dream in a junk shop. Teach is so morally destitute that he is prepared to kill someone over a nickel; he carries a ready-made litany of grievances to justify everything he does. And poor Bobby is little more than a wet puppy hoping for a pat on the head – eager to help with a burglary to prove his worth.

If this play sounds a bit on the dark side, let’s remember that Mamet is famous for such plays as Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna. There are plenty of laughs, but no joy. That said, this is a compelling, precisely paced production that does what theatre should do – hold our attention ransom from beginning to end. The three actors give Director Chris Bremer everything he could hope for; their mastery of Mamet’s jagged dialog is uncanny. In fact, Matthew David as Teach is downright scary, and when his fury erupts, it fills the corners of the intimate Aaron DeRoy Theatre. It’s thrilling to watch.

Bremer’s vision for American Buffalo is further realized in an amazing set by Elspeth Williams, with property design by Harold Jurkewicz. Don’s Resale Store is a triumph of tiny details – from the broken sink in the lavatory (complete with fading girlie pinups) – to the signs declaring “cash only” and warning customers about surveillance cameras. Donny reserves the right to turn away unsavory characters. Best of all, the glass storefront looks out across the street – so that we actually see characters as they come and go. Act Two begins with a menacing thunderstorm that rages upstage and soaks the actors (yes, real rain) as they dash in and out of the store. Lighting by Neil Koivu, Sound Design by Matt Lira, and costumes by Mary Copenhagen complete the stellar production design.

David Mamet is as fine a playwright as you’ll find anywhere, and American Buffalo is one of his best works. This explosive JET production deserves attention. This is not a play for children or anyone who can’t get past the non-stop barrage of profanity. But it is a perfect example of how Mamet arranges his dialog in such a way that the story reveals itself in the spaces between the words. French artist Marcel Duchamp famously explained that, “It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.” Mamet somehow manages this trick with his script. The JET production now being staged is a perfect opportunity to see how it’s done.

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Week of 5/29/2023

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