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Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)   
American Buffalo

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Keith Albers
at Touchstone Theatre, Spring Green, WI (map)
thru Nov 8  |  tickets: $44-$70   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
   Read review



A richly illuminating window into survival on gutter lane


Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)


American Players Theatre presents


American Buffalo

Review by Catey Sullivan 

You gotta hand it to David Mamet. With American Buffalo, he penned one of the most vividly character-defining entrances in the history of contemporary drama. “Fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie,” bellows Teach, the more emphatically expressive three damaged characters in Mamet’s profane, poetic, and blisteringly funny/sad story of cracked-out family values and the curdled underside of the American Dream.

Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)
Teach is on a tear because the aforementioned Ruthie has no manners and, unforgivably, has snarfed down one of his sweetrolls without asking first.

“From the mouth of a southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come,” Teach continues. Then he gets really angry in what amounts to an automatic machine gun of a monolog. Delivered by the consistently astonishing James Ridge, the passage just about perfectly evokes the violent, poignant remnants of family values that Teach, junk shop owner Donny (Brian Mani) and dubiously recovering smack addict Bobby (Brandon Meyer) cling to by the shreds of their fungus-infected fingernails.

Directed by Keith Albers for American Players’ intimate, indoor Touchstone Theatre, American Buffalo captures a twisted kind of heroism through the story of three men on the fringes of society, struggling through the heart of the 1970s. Those of us who were there remember that decade for its Bicentennial frenzy, when America celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In 1976, the year after American Buffalo debuted, Bicentennial consumer frenzy was at a surreal height. You could mark the momentous year by purchasing everything from a limited edition red, white and blue coffin to a gold-plated Zippo, engraved with a bald eagle with .76-carat diamond eyes.

Teach, Donny and Bobby are not living in that prosperous, celebratory world. They’re outliers, scrambling to keep body and soul together in the distant shadows where the pursuit of happiness is a shady hustle. Within the confines of a junk shop that could double as a set for “Hoarders”, American Buffalo transports audiences to the battered edges of that pursuit, a world of broken people, broken dreams and broken merchandise. Here, the last, faint embers of hope are in danger of being suffocated under junked typewriters, cast away tchotchkes and moldering books.

In a perpetual twilight where grimed over windows leave the sun the color of dirty dishwater (nice work by lighting designer Noele Stollmack), Teach, Donny and Bobby wage a battle of not-so-quiet desperation. Donny’s purchase of a (possibly) rare American Buffalo nickel could be his ticket toward the middle class mainstream. Or, it could be a fake – an emblem of a Sisyphean struggle where for every three steps forward, you must take four steps back.

Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)
Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)
Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)
Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)
Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)

I suppose you could fault Mamet for his infamous, prolific reliance on profanity. But that would be wrong. Embedded in the countless f-bombs and sh**-storms, the playwright creates powerful poetry, expletives piling on expletives in a staccato of busted balladry that is at once as ugly as extreme poverty and as potent as the most carefully crafted sonnet.

American Buffalo swirls through Mamet’s elliptically, at times oddly formal language as Teach, Donny and Bobby provide a window on survival in gutter lane. Director Albers mightily illuminates the sorrow, frustration and the grasping aspirations that Bobby, Teach and Donny reveal while in a noisy pitch-black comedic commentary on the dog-eat-dog state of affairs that informs their bleak world.

“I am out there every day,” Teach lectures, “There is nothing out there.” The world, he rages on, is a place of lies where “there is no friendship.” It’s eat or be eaten, he rails, and woe unto them who steal his breakfast pastries. But for all Teach’s protestations to the contrary, friendship and solidarity blooms like weeds through sidewalk cracks in American Buffalo. Donny has taken Bobby under his wing, prodding the young man to eat, giving him odd (and quasi-legal) jobs, and above all believing that the skinny, needy, less-than-Mensa-material youngster can stay clean of the heroin that he’s been hooked on.

The three-person cast nails Mamet’s razor-sharp dialog. As Donny, Rani makes for a battered, proprietary patriarch. He’s fiercely protective of Bobby, trying to instill the dubiously recovering drug addict with a sense of purpose, business ethics and community – never mind that those ethics involve the occasional felony and that the community is one of angry, petty criminals forever on the cusp of getting sent to prison.

Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)
Meyer is believably jittery as Bobby, never making eye contact quite long enough to be trusted and seeming alternately innocent and just plain vacuous. Bobby’s got just enough intelligence (or maybe it’s just information) to be a menace to himself and possibly others. He’s one of those 20something guys certain they can handle far more than they’re equipped to deal with. In Meyer’s spot-on performance, it’s clear that Bobby may or may not be back on the needle as he wheedles cash out of Donny and attempts to cash in on his own, suspiciously acquired Buffalo nickel.

But this is Ridge’s, ahem, motherfuckin’ show, and he doesn’t just bring down the house with his Teach, he destroys it (quite literally, in the final moments). Teach is instantly recognizable – from the first second of his entrance, you know this guy. He’s the misogynistic hustler who fancies himself a chick magnet and worships at the altar of his own nutsack. He’s a legend in his own mind, the smartest, hottest guy in the room and if you don’t believe that, you can just ask him. As he struts around the stage in skin-tight bell bottoms, aviator pimp shades and a shiny shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, he’s like a Bantam rooster het up on off-brand Diet Pills, Colt 45 and speedballs cut with generic detergent. Underpinning his bravado is pure rage at a world that owes him and a chip on his shoulder roughly the size he fancies his balls to be.

Ridge makes Teach both hilarious and heartbreaking, the embodiment of bad choices, a worse fashion sense and a soul-deep grudge against a world that won’t cut him a break. In all, it’s an utterly delicious performance, from the stolen Danish rant to his final, explosive frenzy of destruction.

The set and costume design for American Buffalo are as richly detailed and evocative as the performances. Anne Murphy’s costumes are a time machine that instantly immerse you in the fashion disaster that was the mid-1970s. Liz Freese’s set is meticulously detailed, right down to the torn stickers advertising Ruthie’s locksmith shop and the diner where Teach lost control of his pastry. The shop itself is immersive, a place so grimy that you’ll want to take a shower after the final curtain. It is also a powerful metaphor, the repository of things purchased with hope and purpose, now relegated to the forgotten corners one step removed from the local dump.


Rating: ★★★★



American Buffalo continues through November 8th at American Players’ Touchstone Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, WI (map).  Tickets are $44-$70, and are available by phone (608-588-2361) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)

Review: American Buffalo (American Players Theatre)

Photos by Zane Williams




Brian Mani (Donny), James Ridge (Teach), Brendan Meyer (Bobby).

behind the scenes

Keith Albers (director), Anne Murphy (costume design), Liz Freese (set design), Christine Adaire (voice and text coach), Noele Stollmack (lighting design), Joe Cerqua (sound design and original music), Jacqueline Singleton (stage manager), Zane Williams (photos)


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