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American Buffalo
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2016

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Desperation is on display in David Mamet’s modern classic play American Buffalo, and it’s not Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” either. In fact, the characters in this highly charged three-person play can get rather loud. With a powerful script and equally powerful acting, this production is a highlight of the year in St. Louis theatre.

The setting is a resale shop in Chicago in the 1970’s. Donny Dubrow (Peter Mayer), the owner of the shop, talks with his young protege, Bobby (Leo Ramsey) about an initially unnamed project they’re working on. Soon after the arrival of their friend, Walter “Teach” Cole (William Roth) we find out exactly what’s being planned. Donny had apparently sold a valuable “Buffalo” nickel to a customer for much less than it was worth, and he wants to get the nickel back by any means necessary, or more specifically, to steal it back. Teach, however, has strong opinions about Bobby’s being involved in this job, and is determined to take Bobby’s place. That’s really the basic plot. Of course more happens and there are some rather devastating developments, but what is front and center here is the world Mamet has created, and these intricately flawed characters and their complicated relationships, with each other and with a few associates they constantly talk about but are never shown, as well as with the world around them.  The language is thoroughly believable and effective. Each character has distinct rhythms of speech. The strong language for which Mamet is known is not as shocking today as it may have been when the play was written, but it’s still effective and perfectly suited to the characters who inhabit this story.

The real “show” here isn’t the plot, really. It’s the characters, and they are exquisitely well-drawn and, in this production, just as exquisitely portrayed. The relationships are also clearly defined. The wary friendship between Donny and Teach, the father/son-like dynamic between Donny and Bobby, and the not-so-thinly veiled suspicion between Bobby and Teach, are all clearly on display here in this lucidly directed production. Mayer is able to find a glimmer of desperate hope behind the defeated world-weariness of Donny, and his protectiveness of Bobby is readily apparent.  Ramsey portrays a real sense of determination and affection for Donny in his portrayal of the somewhat naive but determined Bobby. Roth, for his part, emphasizes the underlying rage in the part of the swaggering, confrontational Teach. All three actors interact with a believable sense of relationship and personal history, and the energy in their confrontations is palpable.  It’s a remarkable feat of acting from all three.

Another intensely impressive aspect of this production is the creation of the characters’ physical world. Set designer Cristie Johnson and props designer Carla Landis Evans have brought Donny’s junk shop to such vivid life that every time I walked past it on the way in and out of the theatre, I just wanted to stop and stare at the sheer level of detail, as every item in the well-stocked shop seemed to have a story of its own. The authenticity is complete down the the display cases, the realistic shop windows, and the well-worn linoleum on the floor. Evans’ costumes also perfectly outfit the characters and anchoring them into the play’s established time and place.  There’s also stellar lighting work from Dalton Robinson and excellent sound design from director John Contini.  The Gaslight Theatre is small, but STLAS continues to impress me with how much they can do with the stage area, creating a space that’s so meticulously detailed and entirely believable as the setting for such a fully realized production.

American Buffalo is a well-crafted work from one of America’s most celebrated modern playwrights. It’s volatile, raw, revealing, and not particularly hopeful, but it gives us a world and characters that are achingly authentic. At St. Louis Actors’ studio, such a work has become something of a master class for top-notch acting directing, and design. That description might make this sound clinical, but it’s not. This play is real, and on clear, emotional display. It’s intense, it’s devastating, and it’s not to be missed.

William Roth, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting American Buffalo at the Gaslight Theatre until December 18, 2016.

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