AMERICAN BUFFALO By David Mamet.
City Equity Theatre, Birmingham, Alabama. 27 May 2006.
William Hutchings, Ph.D. University of Alabama at Birmingham
Seldom if ever has a production of American Buffalo had more verisimilitude than in its three-weekend run in late May and early June in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. As they entered the street-front storefront venue known as The Playhouse in the northern part of the inner city area, playgoers might readily believe they were entering an actual junk shop. The space, routinely used for storage of props by several theatre companies which also make them available for rent, was cluttered with signs, curios, and not-quite-collectibles. Almost a dozen crowded circular racks of women’s formalwear, obviously not quite new and sorted by color, had been shoved out of the way to clear a space for three rows of seating around an elevated acting area. Several women from the audience sorted through the gowns during intermission, looking for bargains in their size. Assorted theatrical props, probably surplus from thrift stores not far away, lined shelves along the walls, and a faux suit of armor stood guard near the door. The heavy black wrought-iron security grilles on the windows and two doors were real, as were those protecting the closed retail stores nearby.
Director Dennis McLernon took full advantage of the urban setting, having actors made their entrances and exits onto the sidewalks and into the street of Third Avenue North. Through the grille-covered windows and glass doors, audiences could see that when Bobby (Tobie Windham) twice left to buy coffee and groceries, he literally crossed the street and rounded the corner of 19th Street, somehow managing to return each time precisely on cue. City buses periodically passed by outside during the performance, as did a garbage truck and several somewhat bewildered pedestrians. In stark contrast to a more conventionally theatrical staging in which actors obviously exit into the wings of a theatre, here Mamet’s urban setting was literally and physically real.
Such verisimilitude is not without perils, as the director and cast found out one night during rehearsal of the play’s second act shortly before the production opened. As crowds came out of the historic Alabama Theatre across the street from The Playhouse, several people saw what they assumed to be a robbery in progress: Teach’s pistol was clearly visible through the windows and doorway, and a physical confrontation was obviously underway. Using their cellphones, several passersby called the police, who dispatched five squadcars to quell the disturbance; the actors explained that it was only a play. An off-duty but uniformed officer was present during the performances to prevent any similar misunderstandings.
Midway through the first act during the performance I attended, however, another such intersection of art and life occurred when a middle-aged man, obviously bewildered and perhaps not entirely sober, wandered into the shop from the street outside, apparently intending to browse its wares. First he stared at proprietor Donny Dubrow (Alan Gardner) behind the counter on the well-lit set. Then he noticed the more-or-less motionless audience in the semi-darkness, who in turn were obviously noticing him. Many seemed uncertain whether a new character in the play, albeit one uncredited in the program, had just made an entrance. Without missing a beat, and exactly as his character Donny would have done if interrupted afterhours while making plans for the robbery, Gardner yelled at him to “Get the fuck out of my shop!” (quite plausibly a Mamet line anyway). The security officer firmly but politely escorted the intruder back outside, in order to explain there that an act of theatre was in process. Only then did some in the audience realize that this had not been an intentional part of the performance.
In such a convincingly realistic setting, with fewer than 100 chairs of various heights and kinds crowded in rows at an obtuse angle in front of the small acting space three steps above floor-level, the play’s claustrophobic intensity was especially effectively enhanced. Burly, balding, and bespectacled, Alan Gardner gave Donny Dubrow an appropriately menacing physical presence, owning his junkshop space in more ways than one, yet capable of compassionate concern for Bobby as his young protégé. With his black leather jacket, his long, slick, silver-white hair, and a cigarette dangling from his lips, Jonathan Fuller brought a neurotic edginess and barely suppressed explosiveness to his characterization of Teach, though his resemblance to actor Steve Buscemi seemed somewhat overplayed. Often caught in angry verbal crossfire between the two, Tobie Windham as Bobby effectively alternated among vulnerability, bewilderment, and street-smart guile. Mamet’s all-important cadences, his ominous silences, and his humor-laced and poetically profane dialogue have been reliably mastered by all three actors, with little or no need for adjustment.
With American Buffalo as its inaugural production, the newly formed City Equity Theatre has dedicated itself to producing edgier and more controversial contemporary theatre than that available at other venues in the area. Given the high standard thus established, and given the unexpected sell-out audiences that arrived despite limited publicity and almost no advertising, the debut seems auspicious indeed.