There was Mary-Arrchie Theatre, minding its own damn business, presenting works (including such recent hits as Greg Allen’s Ibsen’s Ghosts and Hans Fleischmann’s reimagined version of The Glass Menagerie, currently being revived by the Hypocrites) that pretty much epitomize the notion of storefront theater as practiced in Chicago, when all of a sudden artistic director Richard Cotovsky and his colleagues learn that the building they work in is going to be demolished to make way for a new development. Rather than look for alternate digs, Cotovsky decides to close down after Mary-Arrchie’s 2015-’16 season—its 30th.
Needless to say, the final production of that final season has to be something special, and Cotovsky decides on David Mamet’s American Buffalo—an exquisitely apt choice for several reasons, the first being that Mamet’s 1975 tale of three lowlife nobodies planning a heist is drenched in just the sort of grit you expect from Mary-Arrchie. The play is also part of Chicago theater lore in that it launched Mamet as a significant American playwright, defined his famously foulmouthed aesthetic for all time, and supplied some great little anecdotes, like the one from director Gregory Mosher that has Mamet saying, “Tell you what. I’ll put five grand in escrow, and if the play doesn’t win the Pulitzer, keep the money.” (The story would be better if Mamet had actually won for American Buffalo, but he didn’t.) It’s a bittersweet touch to think of Mary-Arrchie’s piece of history ending with that particular script.
Then too, American Buffalo has Donny Dubrow, the owner of Don’s Resale Shop and the quiet, diffident soul among Mamet’s would-be desperados. With his big, gray beard, his always-evaluating eyes, his low-affect, stand-and-deliver acting style, Cotovsky is the Donny I see when I close my eyes.
So it’s settled, right? American Buffalo is the perfect play for the occasion.
Well, not quite. Because Mamet’s permission to perform it carries a stipulation: Mary-Arrchie may not advertise the run or permit critics to review it.
Never mind the weirdness of supposing you can keep the press out of a show (though I guess it’s not all that weird after all, given the “no-media safe space” Black Lives Matter protesters felt entitled to establish at the University of Missouri), the requirement basically condemned Mary-Arrchie to perform its farewell show—its 30th anniversary farewell show—in the context of a media lockdown.
The news caused a small social-media frenzy among local artists. Ultimately, a friend of Chicago theater (officially anonymous but unofficially acknowledged to be Tracy Letts) intervened and got the prohibition lifted.
And the result? After all that real-world drama, the stipulation-free Mary Arrchie American Buffalo turns out to be something of an anticlimax: good but not great. Not the triumphant send-off we might hope for.
Mamet’s narrative concerns an unseen coin collector who happens into Donny’s shop one day, finds a rare nickel, and buys it off Donny for $90, thereby awakening Donny’s dreams of a life-changing score. He conceives a vague plan to steal back the nickel, along with whatever other coins the numismatist keeps at home, and sets it in motion by assigning a simpleminded neighborhood kid named Bobby to keep an eye on the collector. But Bobby isn’t so simpleminded that he doesn’t have dreams of his own. And neither is Donny’s blustery pal, Teach, who counts himself in on the job. American Buffalo is a story about men tortured by their inability to negotiate the means to success.
If the play were a band, Cotovsky’s Donny would be a solid rhythm section, backing the more flamboyant solos by Teach and Bobby. Cotovsky does the job with such great modesty and compassion that he remains the Donny behind my eyes. But in Carlo Lorenzo Garcia’s staging, the solos lack subtlety. Stephen Walker comes off entertainingly in the early going by exploiting the fact that Teach is full of shit. In the second act, though, when things get more complex, Walker’s only response is to get louder. Similarly, Rudy Galvan flattens Bobby into an object of sympathy when he could be a far more interesting type of mess.
There you have it, then: a middling American Buffalo but a killer 30 years. So long, Mary-Arrchie. v