Actors’ Theatre of San Francisco’s revival of David Mamet‘s American Buffalo is a brilliantly directed, brilliantly acted production of a great classic of American playwriting.

Few plays in our theatrical history have hit with the impact of Mamet’s American Buffalo which was born in Chicago in 1975 and exploded on Broadway two years later. Many audiences and critics were shocked by the barrage of obscenities and half-articulated thoughts of the lowlives who make up the cast of characters. There were quite a few howls of derision from more conservative audiences, but most critics were quick to acknowledge this important play as a masterpiece. Many compared Mamet’s use of language favorably to that of Harold Pinter, despite the florid abundance of obscenities.

Set in a junkshop owned by a crook, the play is about business as understood by the underclass. Junkshop owner Donny admires Walter Cole (nicknamed “Teach”) as a source of wisdom. Teach is the sort of guy who can talk of business and friendship like this: “Friendship is friendship and a wonderful thing and I’m all for it. … But let’s just keep it separate, huh, let’s just keep the two apart, and maybe we can deal with each other like human beings.”

The (deceptively) simple plot is set in motion by a plan to rob a coin collector who lives nearby. Donny, a criminal with a soft heart, takes care of Bobby, a teenage junkie, and has invited the boy to help out with the robbery. When Teach learns of this, he insinuates himself into the plan, forcing Bobby out.

Using this uncomplicated setup, Mamet proceeds to explore, in painful and skillful detail, the human implications of the relationships among this unhappy trinity of trash. The play is about the impact of the shallow values of unchecked, selfish capitalism (“fuckin business…” says Donny) on the fragile values of friendship, loyalty, kindness and care.

By placing this dialogue among cheap crooks who have no pretense of legitimacy, Mamet is able to swing his satirical bat with unbridled force at American business ethics and his satire is a home run. Even after three decades, American Buffalo is shocking, violent, disturbing, angry, and very, very funny.

Theatre folk acknowledge that Mamet is extraordinarily difficult to produce successfully. The language is confusing, the plots absurd, and the emotional demands on the actors enormous. Director Keith Phillips has drawn masterful performances from his actors.

Vlad Sayenko, Randy Hurst and Christian Phillips in "American Buffalo". Photo credit: Actors' Theatre of San Francisco.

Christian Phillips‘ performance as Teach is, without question, among the finest I have seen in 40 years of theatre going. He brings to life a man of intelligence, rage and despair whose exquisite interior pain and disappointment in life can only be expressed in explosions of obscenity and bullying. Randy Hurst‘s kind and confused Donny allows himself to be emotionally pulled in many directions as the action unfolds, never losing his sense of reality, never missing any subtleties of Mamet’s language, always alert and responsive to each nuance in the performance of his fellow cast members. Vlad Sayenko, who recently appeared on the same stage in a superb performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Steetcar Named Desire, demonstrates that he is an actor of vast range. As Bobby, the young junkie who is unsure of himself, disoriented, abused and pummeled by Teach, Sayenko creates a role that is as far from the cocky Stanley as one can imagine. Sayenko manages to suggest a full street life for the young character with his extraordinarily expressive body language and always sincere interactions.

It is no accident that this company refers to itself as an “actors theatre”. As always, their commitment to the best ensemble playing is evident in each polished detail of each scene. The final moments of this remarkable production will not be forgotten by any fortunate enough to attend.

On opening night, the cast received a well-deserved standing ovation and had to take an extra curtain call.

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