REVIEW: “American Buffalo” at Dorset

by Roseann Cane

In 1975, 27-year-old up-and-coming Chicago writer David Mamet submitted American Buffalo to Chicago’s Goodman Theater. The play would make its way to Broadway, where it would win the New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best American Play of the 1976-77 season, and establish Mamet as a distinctive and important contemporary playwright.

Set in a grubby junk shop, three men, including the shop’s owner, Donny Dubrow; Donny’s gofer, Bobby; and Donny’s friend, Walter Cole, known as “Teach,” fervently scheme to steal a buffalo nickel, which they are certain is a rare coin that will make them rich.

At the Dorset Theatre Festival, director John Gould Rubin has assembled a stellar trio of actors for this production. As Donny, Stephen Adly Guirgis (himself a prolific playwright and a Pulitzer prize winner) manages to make Donny’s strong ambivalence–genuine concern for his troubled gofer’s well being and his eagerness to make a windfall–palpable. As Bobby, Oliver Palmer creates an agitated, needy young junkie with a heartbreaking desire to please his mentor. Treat Williams, as Teach, is sensational as the volatile, manipulative conniver.

I was gratified to observe three very different actors, including a somewhat newly minted one, orchestrated by Rubin, succeed in transmitting this rapid-fire, blistering story with such energy and depth. For American Buffalo to work, the audience must feel as though they were passengers on a runaway train that is rapidly accelerating before reaching a grinding halt, and this trio succeeds. It is a difficult play for actors who have a limited rehearsal period, and as the evening wore on, there were a few minor glitches (dropped lines, a barely-audible ringing of a telephone) that I have no doubt will be resolved promptly.

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For this production, the Dorset Theatre has chosen to place onstage seating “for a more immersive experience,” placing two four-rowed blocks of seats directly upstage of the actors. I found this a bit distracting. As lovely as the onstage audience members appeared, the onstage seats do pose a challenge to the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but I suspect that not everyone was bothered. Nevertheless, it does not create a theater-in-the-round experience that that Rubin described in an interview with the Rutland Herald. I can appreciate the need to accommodate as many audience members as possible, but it’s not a choice I would have made.

Nevertheless, Christopher Barreca’s scene design manages to create a cluttered junk-shop feeling with a spartan set, and that’s no small feat. Kate Fry’s costumes were appropriately dingy. Some of the blocking moves actors offstage but not out of the scene, placing them briefly in front of the first row and away from the lighting into semi-darkness, and that’s my only quibble with Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design. Except for the aforementioned low-volume telephone ring, I found Ryan Rumery’s sound design intriguing in the nicest way, with intermittent music that could have emanated from Tibetan singing bowls, creating a subliminal contrast with the ruthlessness and scheming manipulations portrayed onstage.

This was my first visit to the Dorset Theatre Festival; I hope it will be the first of many. Between the fine work onstage, the exceptionally gracious staff, and the beautiful location of the theater, I had a lovely evening, and I’d strongly recommend that you hasten to see American Buffalo here, before it closes on September 2. As with just about any Mamet play, American Buffalo contains very strong language and some violence, so it’s not suitable for young children, or for anybody who finds graphic sexual language offensive.

Dorset Theatre Festival presents David Mamet’s American Buffalo, directed by John Gould Rubin, August 24-September 2 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, VT. Set design by Christopher Barreca, lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge, sound design by Ryan Rumery, costume design by Kate Fry, Fight Choreography by Michael F. Toomey, and stage manager Sarah Perlin. CAST: Stephen Adly Guirgis as Donny Dubrow, Treat Williams as Walter “Teach” Cole, Oliver Palmer as Bobby.

American Buffalo runs  Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Aug. 30, and Saturday, Sept. 2. Tickets are $39-$45; call 867-2223, ext. 2, or go online to dorsettheatrefestival.org.

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