Sunday, February 25, 2018

Carmel Community Players' "American Buffalo": the small-scale banality (and comedy) of evil

The quest for any advantage over others is often glorified as an American prerogative. David Mamet has long run a mine-sweeper over this well-worn terrain, finding improbable comedy in the unexploded ordnance and grubby miscalculations of wannabe winners.

Switching to above-ground weaponry, "American Buffalo" hits the target dead center. The show had its second performance Saturday night in a Carmel Community Players production at the company's soon-to-be-vacated home on Clay Terrace Boulevard.

From the title onward, the 1975 play is about bewilderment. It literally designates a rare buffalo nickel that triggers a plot to get rich off stolen coins. In classic American slang, if you're buffaloed, you're baffled, and Mamet's three characters are the picture of such a condition in varying degrees: the captious lout Walter "Teach" Cole at the one extreme of knowingness that turns out to be shallow; Chicago junk-shop proprietor and poker buddy Donny Dubrow somewhere in the middle, shrewd but inherently cautious; his young hanger-on Bobby the most naive and least capable of pulling the scheme off.

Buffaloed in Chicago: Cast in Carmel
They all end up flummoxed, but it's how they get there that lends the play its scabrous joy. Lori Raffel directs a cast that is in tune with the rapid-fire dialogue, which is well-seasoned with both obscenities and faux-cryptic, makeshift euphemisms. On the characters' scale of values, honesty weighs suspiciously light, though it's often invoked as common coin. The exchange value of honor among thieves remains in question.

There were times when the actors — particularly Larry Adams as Donny and Earl Campbell as Teach — seemed to be so embedded in the Mamet style that lines were delivered unclearly. Just as a stage whisper must literally be above a real whisper, so must off-the-cuff, intimate, staccato dialogue among criminal confederates be dialed back slightly to maximize intelligibility. Audiences are presumably hearing the lines for the first time, after all.

Putting that aside, the overall level of performance was consistently rich in the tension inevitably connected with a risky exercise of greed laced with ineptitude. Campbell supplied much of the menace and spark to the plotting, using a voice normally clear, cutting and edgy, moving about the stage with an evident capacity to erupt. When the eruption comes, it manages to be both shocking and predictable — a credit to the authenticity of Campbell's performance.

Adams' portrayal hinted at a degree of delicacy in the character of Donny, who while "maturing his felonious little plans" (to quote W.S. Gilbert) must inevitably consider practical matters like the survival of his small business in a dodgy neighborhood. Daniel Shock's characterization of Bobby was somewhat confusing: I wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be mentally defective or simply out of his depth. I leaned toward the latter interpretation as the plot thickened in the second act. He was just a different kind of dim bulb from the more voluble Teach and the nervous Donny.

Risa Krauter's set design was spacious and maybe too neat for a junk shop. But it was aptly appointed with a variety of discards and castoffs that suggested Donny's receptivity to dealing in all sorts of stuff — even in areas where gaps in his knowledge might prove a liability, like rare coins. Raffel's lighting subtly showed the contrast in time between the junk shop in late morning and at the midnight hour, when the love of money comes tumbling down.

I think a backstage door might have been added (or at least the sound of one) to punctuate exits and entrances from the shop; Bobby's second-act vigorous knocking was the sole indication the shop even had a door. And in the world of "American Buffalo," a secure door properly symbolizes the closed-in milieu of the shop and the characters' disastrous separation from an outside world not inclined to go along with them.