One of the more traditional ways of celebrating an event of particular significance is with a champagne toast — a fleet of slender flute glasses filled with bright, gently sparkling wine raised in good cheer and happiness.
Joy Zinoman elected to take a very different approach to saluting her final directing credit as founding artistic director of Washington’s Studio Theatre. She’s taken that bottle of champagne – in the form of a new production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo – shaken it as hard as she possibly can and then left us all waiting with dreadful anticipation for that moment when the bottle will explode. It’s a toast that might not get you tipsy but will leave you perched on the edge of your seat drinking in all the splendid tension.
American Buffalo first premiered in Chicago in 1975 (the same year Zinoman founded the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory) and introduced audiences to the patois that marks all of Mamet’s work. Sentences are clipped, seemingly sprouting up out of nothing and just as abruptly evaporating away. It’s as though we are always coming in just after the show has begun, just after something completely forgettable but critically important has taken place.
”Fuck” can, and often does, play any part necessary in creating a dialogue. People are fucked, get fucked, are fucks. And the threat of violence – physical or mental – is always present. That’s where the tension comes into play. The single note of a violin suspended in the air for what seems like an eternity, a rising nausea of anxious anticipation not for what will come next, but for how bad it will be when it finally arrives.
Adding to the fantastic claustrophobia of the play is the fact that it begins, unravels and ends in the cramped, overstuffed storefront that is Don’s Resale Shop. Donny (Edward Gero) and the young, intensely fragile Bobby (Jimmy Davis) are in the middle (of course) of an argument that isn’t necessarily an argument. Bobby has done something wrong (or is agonizing over having done something wrong), while Donny volleys back and forth between a kind of fatherly anger and paternal empathy.
But they aren’t father and son. They are business partners in a scheme to steal back a nickel that Donny sold to a seemingly well-off businessman. That the guy was willing to spend nearly $100 on a nickel means the thing had to be more valuable than Donny suspected. Which makes the guy a no good fuck — pulling a deal like that on Donny.
Fueling the fire and later complicating matters beyond all normal reason is the know-it-all, not good for a lot Teach (Peter Allas). A wannabe big shot with nothing to back it up, Teach has a chip on his shoulder as big as Wrigley Field. Trouble is, odds seem better than average that even Teach doesn’t remember why that is.
And that’s the beauty of a Mamet play and the brilliance of what Zinoman and Studio Theatre have created with it. Performed in The Milton Theatre on Studio’s second floor, American Buffalo has been intimately and snugly staged. The audience is, almost literally, placed too close for comfort.
And that’s a very good thing.
It’s all the better to appreciate the great dynamic created by Gero and Davis. Gero has made a fascinating and intricate construction of his Donny. No matter how far away the character has to wander, no matter how many questionable boundaries he presses against, even at his most despicable Gero is able to lace Donny with a gentle humanity. He’s real, tangible, wearing his mistakes like a man who has been taking care of himself a long time and angry like a man whose downright sick of it. It’s a fantastic performance.
Teach is Donny’s opposite number and Allas grabs all those cues. He’s insufferable and slimy, filled with false promises and bankrupt ideas. Allas’s portrayal is marked by an amazing physicality, communicating as much with the way he enters a room as with the way he slams a door or kicks a trashcan. There is no care for anyone else in the world except himself. Allas has delivered a character to the stage that we want to be rid of even though we dread his absence.
Davis is the third rail of this production. Nervous and shaky. Empty headed and addled. Maybe a junkie, maybe a little disturbed. Most definitely a kid who is desperate for someone, anyone to help him out. He’s just not sure what that means.
Where Allas has Teach’s puffed chest bellowing and Gero Donny’s off-kilter ”Father knows best” demeanor, Davis is rapidly fraying electrical wire. He’s more dangerous than either of his ill-chosen mentors realize. It’s a secret that informs Davis’s dead-on performance and lingers with us after we depart.
Which, ultimately, seems to be the point. The lives of the three men rattling around Don’s Resale Shop seem as though they might carry on even after the curtain has closed on American Buffalo. That’s the beauty of a Mamet play.
And that will also be the lingering echo of the work of Joy Zinoman. Even after this curtain closes, the contributions she has made to D.C. theater will carry on.