Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Jul 1, 2014
02:51 PM
Stage Write

APT's 'American Buffalo' Is a Tale of Sound and Fury

APT's 'American Buffalo' Is a Tale of Sound and Fury

PHOTO BY ZANE WILLIAMS

Jim Ridge (right) is a savage superball as the menacing Teach in APT's production of 'American Buffalo.'

“One thing makes all the difference: Knowing what the f*** you’re talking about.”

Truer words, one might say, although we’d probably take slight issue with the method of delivery. Coming out of the mouth of Teach, the angry and confrontational centerpiece of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, they’re less an observation or statement of fact than a challenge, a gauntlet thrown in the face of the listener.

That gauntlet seems to slap a little more sharply in the intimate confines of American Players Theatre’s Touchstone Theatre. Director Kenneth Albers production of Buffalo is the first Mamet play the space has seen, and the first forwarded by new artistic director and avowed Mamet fan Brenda DeVita. Given how slickly the cast handles this biter slice of American theater, you can bet we’ll see more in coming seasons.

Mamet, with his rat-a-tat dialogue liberally littered with F-bombs and other such niceties, is ever the champion of the underdog, the rough-and-tumble everyguys whose day-to-day economic and emotional struggles somehow seem both epic and Herculean—even when they clearly aren’t. American Buffalo features three of those ‘dogs: Donny (Brian Mani), a resale shop owner who doesn’t have nearly as much power or drive as he thinks he does, Bobby (Brendan Meyer) a dim and wispy teen who hangs around the shop picking up dubious life lessons, and Teach (Jim Ridge) a foul-mouthed blusterer who’s as mysterious as he could be dangerous. Their adventure, such as it is, hinges on a half-assed plan to rob a customer of a supposedly valuable buffalo nickel he bought in the store the day before.

Albers begins the play with noise, the loud sounds of sirens and traffic suggesting a chaotic 1970s universe beyond the doors of Donny’s store. The opening scene is much more quiet, as Donny and Bobby talk about a card game from the night before.

And then, suddenly, like a fireball through the front door, Ridge appears, looking like he’s just strolled off the set of “Welcome Back Kotter,” with his leather jacket, plaid high-risers and oversized collar points that seem sharp enough to cut throats. Moving ever more rapidly as he picks up steam, Ridge’s Teach quickly becomes a savage superball, bouncing the walls of Don’s shop with murky purpose, the targets of his ire shifting with his moods. His performance perches on the edge of ridiculous and menacing—like Donny and Bobby, you’re almost afraid to laugh for fear his anger will suddenly be turned on you.

As Bobby, the wispy teen who serves as Donny’s gofer and sometimes-surrogate son, Meyer’s youngish face and demeanor certainly help him look and inhabit the part.  Meyer gives Bobby’s hesitant, clipped responses a puppyish quality, and it’s heartbreaking to see the brutal reward his innocent initiative earns him.  

Liz Freese’s set beautifully and painstakingly evokes a ‘70s-era resale shop, complete with shelves packed with bizarre knickknacks and desks festooned with spinning racks of touristy postcards. It seems slightly superfluous given that its only practical purpose seems to be serving as something for Teach to trash in a fit of rage.  

APT’s producing Much Ado About Nothing up the hill this summer, but that play’s title could also serve as a subtitle for Mamet’s work, which, if viewed a certain way, amounts to a small group of characters planning and plotting to accomplish little or nothing at all. Stopping to consider the weight—or more appropriately, the lack of weight—of their scheme adds an additional, sad dimension to the proceedings. These are men talking about boosting something whose actual value is entirely unknown from a man they’re not even sure is where they think he is. Their plan is flimsier than Adam Sandler’s movie career, and yet it’s treated like the Antwerp Diamond heist.

These men so desperately want to matter and connect to something important, something greater, that they’ll do and believe almost anything to make it so. The strength of the performances here almost—almost—makes us believe it, too.

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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