Irony abounds in American Buffalo, the play that moved David Mamet to the front ranks of American playwrights. There's the fact that the character most enamored of free enterprise spends his days in acts of small-time thuggery. And an apparently naive and trusting youth is revealed as the play's greatest agent of deceit.
You'll discover another irony—or maybe it's just an interesting coincidence—in the playbill. To the left of a page crediting the human beings who made this play—the cast, crew and playwright—is an ad for financial juggernaut Merrill Lynch and its slogan: "Be Bullish." That dichotomy—between the real people who make up society and who yearn for honor and respect and community, and the immense, impersonal forces shaping that society—is what Mamet's play is about. And that tension reverberates throughout this excellent Laguna Playhouse production.
American Buffalois also about men and friendship and trust and dirty words and—warning: Mamet cliché alert—staccato dialogue. Mamet is usually praised for that sparse, realistic dialogue, his gritty characterizations of desperate people grabbing for the brass ring. But he's also a writer with big ideas, and American Buffalois a perfect example of his smarts.
The play is ostensibly about three small-time crooks who work in a downtown junk store and craft a harebrained scheme to rob a man of his coin collection, including a rare buffalo nickel worth $90. At its most elemental, the play follows the bungling, arguments and alliance-shifting that transform a simple heist into an increasingly risky proposition.
But there's more to this play, and director Andrew Barnicle knows that. It's often said that the only genuine mentoring of males in American society comes in their work relationships; the shop floor has filled the vacuum created by absent—because they are working—fathers in an aggressively capitalist society. Barnicle's casting of two actors who bear a strong resemblance to each other as the two hoods whom Donny, the owner of the junk shop, takes beneath his crooked wing illuminates that father/son dynamic. Donny (Mike Hagerty) is the father figure. He has told Teach (David Gianopoulos), a hip paranoid know-it-all, and Bobby (Joshua Hutchinson) everything he knows. That isn't much: whatever Donny possesses in trust and advice, he more than lacks in intelligence and genuine wisdom.
Yet Donny believes he's instilling solid business sense in his employees. And indeed he is because although the business deal in American Buffalois predicated on fraud and deceit, what business deals aren't? Salesmen who try to get an edge on one another; the fine, fine print in contracts; the legal maneuverings of corporations; the greasing of political palms: capitalism rewards the most nakedly aggressive and cutthroat, and the three characters in American Buffaloknow that. But, as Donny realizes too late, it's possible a little intelligence and some genuine scruples don't hurt either.
As Donny, Hagerty poignantly captures the personality of a simple-minded crook with a big, if tainted, heart who finally realizes that it's the human relationships that count, not the economic ones. His is the most compassionate performance, but both Gianopoulos and Hutchinson are similarly excellent. Those fine performances—and Barnicle's ability to navigate his actors around Richard Odle's spot-on set of a cluttered junk shop—underscore the ideas of Mamet's play. There are no unnecessary movements or visual distractions from the words. That intense focus allows Mamet's cynical take on business ethics to slice as sharply as it did some 25 years ago.
American Buffalo at Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 pm.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through July 1. $34-$43.