Theater review: ‘American Buffalo’ – Outstanding production ensures no danger of extinction of classic play

American Buffalo: Vlad Sayenko (Bobby); Randy Hurst (Donny); Christian Phillips (Teach)
American Buffalo: Vlad Sayenko (Bobby); Randy Hurst (Donny); Christian Phillips (Teach)

American Buffalo took the theatre world by storm when it debuted in Chicago in 1975.  David Mamet’s allegory about the dubious morality of American capitalism showcased a mastery of the vernacular of the urban underclass that had been hitherto unseen. It has an undeniable authenticity and power – despite the fact that his stylized use of profanity, breakneck pacing and pithy, fragmented phrasing often flirts with (without ever fully embracing) the satirical.

The entire two-act play takes place in a single set depicting a seedy, secondhand store painstakingly decorated to capture the period by designers James Baldock and Jen Welch. It’s owned by Donny (Randy Hurst), the alleged “brains” of the hapless trio of small-time crooks who hatch a plan to rob a coin collector. The numismatist became a “mark” because he took advantage of the junk dealer by purchasing a rare American buffalo nickel for a fraction of its value.

Suffice it to say the scheme goes awry, but in the process the playwright weaves a stunning tale of friendship, betrayal, delusion and paranoia among his pitiable band of thieves.

Christian Phillips, co-founder and artistic director of the company, has a trademark menacing intensity tempered with an unmistakable intellect that serves his character well. “Teach” (aka Walter) ostensibly serves as “muscle” for the proposed heist, but his wry observations of the darker side of human nature reveal he’s an existentialist, albeit an uneducated one, at heart. The robbery is more than another job to him – it’s a defining moment in a life filled with disappointment and despair.

The intricate bond between Walter and Donny is undeniable, but it’s borne out of a kind of codependence as much as any notion of genuine affection. Phillips’ outstanding signature turn nails both the emotional volatility of the role and the unique rhythm of the dialogue with a seemingly effortless concentration and aplomb. Bravo!

Vlad Sayenko plays Bobby, a drug addict whom Donny takes under his wing and designates as his original partner in the daring plot. But Teach convinces Donny that Bobby is too naïve and unreliable for such a big score and is allowed to take his place. They assure one another that the decision is strictly “business” and nothing personal.

Sayenko portrays the young substance abuser as sweet and a little slow, but with an agenda that’s not entirely clear. Interestingly, the subtlety of his performance purposely avoids the manic energy one would typically expect of a junkie and is both engaging and quite affecting.

Caught between his addicted friend and his unpredictable, suspicious cohort, Donny does his level best to keep the peace and bring together his poorly thought-out crime.

Early on it becomes apparent that he’s not a bad man and is not entirely comfortable with the highly risky, illicit project. But it’s his sense of righteous indignation and entitlement that motivate him to carry on. Besides, it’s only business (a recurring theme). Hurst’s multi-layered characterization manages to effectively convey Donny’s ethical ambivalence and essential goodness, but the veteran actor seems perplexed by the Mamet’s demanding timing and tempo and he flubs his lines a few times too often to ignore.

Once again, Actors Theatre of San Francisco has chosen to tackle one of the best and most difficult plays written in contemporary American English. This successful production, featuring the sure-handed direction of Keith Phillips, is illustrative of just how their steadfast refusal to be intimidated by such challenging material can have outstanding results.

American Buffalo

4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

Actors Theatre of San Francisco
Directed by Keith Phillips
Written by David Mamet
July 23, 2011 thru September 3, 2011
Actors Theatre of San Francisco

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