Remains Theatre

The would-be cat burglar called Teach spends a good deal of his time looking for his hat in David Mamet’s 1975 breakthrough play, American Buffalo. He never finds it, though. When finally he has to go out in the rain, late in the play, he takes a piece of newspaper and folds that up into a hat instead.

It’s a pretty silly image, of course: the newsprint Napoleon in his Superfly shirt and his shiny polyester pants. The question is, what can that image be besides silly?

It can be devastating. Set in a resale shop under the el and populated with a trio of small-time scroungers, American Buffalo is capable of tearing your poor theatergoer’s heart out even as it’s plying you with absurdities. When Donny the shop owner lectures his addled junkie sidekick, Bobby, on the importance of a healthy breakfast–or again, later, when Donny and Teach confer knowingly about rare coins and safecracking, even though they haven’t the foggiest notion about either–you can laugh, as they say, till it hurts.

American Buffalo may function nicely as a comedy about some low-life fuck-ups who don’t pull off a heist, but at its heart it has to do with the insupportable pain of three weak souls trying to bluff and bargain their way through the meanest stratum of a hard system. Three awkward souls who haven’t got and won’t get the chops they need just to cope.

And who consequently improvise a family among themselves–an urban, underclass version of the Trasks from East of Eden, with Donny as the father for whose love and approval Teach and Bobby compete so pathetically, doing their desperate but ridiculous best. “Are you mad at me?” Teach keeps asking Donny from the middle of some mess. American Buffalo can be both funny and killingly sad.

Unfortunately, the new Remains Theatre production can manifest only the humor. Mike Nussbaum’s direction pushes for a quickstep comic rhythm that demonstrates how really hilarious a Mamet line can be, but ends up denying the play its darker shadings–not to mention its pitch-black core. It’s a peculiar feeling to sit in the theater and watch a show that entertains so completely while so completely missing the point.

I don’t think Nussbaum meant to gut American Buffalo this badly. I think he meant to convey the notion of Teach, Donny, and Bobby as clown figures: foulmouthed lumpen fools in the style of Ralph Kramden and–especially–Ed Norton. Gregory Mosher did something similar five years ago, giving the salesmen in the touring version of Glengarry Glen Ross a whiff of Beckettian vaudeville. Teach’s paper Harlequin hat would be the ultimate expression of–or punch line to–that approach.

But Nussbaum never finds a way to counterpoint the comedy. To give it density, depth, or darkness. After a while, not even William Petersen can stop the laughter: Petersen’s big store-trashing breakdown as Teach comes across as a minor, not very clearly motivated caesura in the comic momentum. When he puts on the paper hat, it’s nothing more than silly.

All in all, I’d say Petersen suffers the most from Nussbaum’s strategy. His Teach is a cipher–utterly without a past or a present reality. Where does he go when he leaves Donny’s store? He goes offstage.

Larry Brandenburg communicates some of the fatherly tenderness he must have as Donny, but none of the desperation. Of course, Kevin Snow’s neat, overly aestheticized set may have had something to do with my inability to see the petty criminal in the guy. Snow makes Donny’s shop look like a Wisconsin knickknackery.

Only Kevin Hurley’s Bobby survives. Diffident and grave, Hurley’s performance refuses to jump to Nussbaum’s rhythms. Hurley sticks close to the character’s essential pain, his sorrowful and absolute need to have Donny’s acceptance, Donny’s protection, Donny’s love. It’s Hurley’s stubborn focus that saves the last minutes of this production for the weak souls at the bottom of American Buffalo.