Taped to the side of the counter in the junk shop that forms the set for David Mamet's "American Buffalo" at Center Stage is a vintage sign: "People who advocate violence should be shot."
Most people in the audience will never see that sign, or hundreds of other items crammed on and around the stage to recreate in painstaking detail the 1970s junk shop Mamet specifies. But all of those objects have a part in creating the uncomfortably real world of dark humor and dark prospects for the three edgy characters who animate this theater classic.
Helping to uncover that reality is South African-born American director Liesl Tommy, making her Center Stage debut and her Mamet debut with this production, which opens Wednesday after a week of previews.
"I feel very strongly about this play," Tommy said, "especially where the country is today, when people are facing such economic bleakness."
Tommy asked the stage crew to add a bit more grime to the set, especially around the light switch next to a door. Again, it might not be visible, but the extra speck of real life has its place.
In "American Buffalo," shop owner Don fumes over a rare nickel he sold and, sure that it was worth much more than he got for it, he plots to steal it back. Don's young protege, Bob, is supposed to help, but Don's buddy Teach, always in the spring-loaded position, has other ideas.
"I have a great deal of compassion for these men," Tommy said. "They're scrambling for a piece of the American dream. Their obsessive talk about business, business, business is very evocative and resonant today. At one point, Teach says, 'I go out there every day. There is nothing out there.' That's so painful and so beautiful."
By turns comic, pathetic and tragic, the play has been recognized as a masterpiece of the American stage since it opened on Broadway in 1977.
Given that "American Buffalo" is a male play through and through — women, when they are spoken of, get branded with the crudest of expressions — a woman director is likely to bring a change in perspective.
"Everything is covered up in this play, but I'm interested in the things they're covering up," Tommy said. "That might be a tension I'm bringing to this as a woman. I always want to push it further. I want the men to maintain eye contact a little bit longer than they are comfortable with."
William Hill, who portrays Don, finds Tommy's approach rewarding.
"After working with Liesl, I can't imagine working on this play with anyone else," he said. "It would be very easy to do this play in a very macho, protected way, and get away with it. But Liesl's an extremely brave director who pushes you to find all the warts and bruises, the happiness and depth of these characters. She leaves no stone unturned. And she encourages everyone to go for broke."
In addition to gender, Tommy brings a distinctive background to this "American Buffalo." She grew up in a colored township outside Cape Town. (Her family moved to the U.S. when she was 15; she currently lives in New York.)
"Because of apartheid, there was an enforced ceiling," Tommy said. "You could only reach a certain level. That breeds frustration and a feeling of being emasculated. It's the same for the characters in the play. And I had a grandfather who was little bit of a shady character, a gambler and small-time gangster. So that part of the play is not unfamiliar to me, either."
Hill, a veteran TV and film actor whose recurring character in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" was just brutally killed off, finds redeeming qualities in the play's characters.
"These three people only have each other," the actor said. "You do not know anything about their lives outside the store. My feeling is they don't have lives outside. But all three are changed forever by what happens. They have bonded in that very macho kind of way. And I think they will remain very good friends, with each of their cuts and bruises, each of their pluses and minuses."
The minuses get a particular workout in this play, but the roughness that Mamet generates does not put Tommy off in the slightest.
"I am kind of a tough chick," she said. "I appreciate all this stuff. The word 'cavemen' gets used several times here. And I've always felt we are a month-long blackout away from quite primitive behavior, seeing that the facade of civilization is only a facade."
The rundown characters in "American Buffalo" are drawn by Mamet with exceptional skill. And their profane dialogue, almost impossibly accurate in capturing the way people actually speak, creates a strange poetry of its own.
"I love language plays," Tommy said. "I'm really obsessed with writers and the way they write, the rhythm of language and how emotions and aspects of humanity can be communicated through meticulous use of language."
Although obscenities have been flying around in the theater for decades, they reach still-notable high speeds and altitudes in "American Buffalo."
"At previews, I've noticed how sometimes people are really quite shocked at the language," Tommy said. "But about a third of the way into it, I've heard little old ladies start to giggle. That gives me a thrill, because I know they have gotten on board with the way these guys are; they've accepted them."
If you go
"American Buffalo," currently in previews, opens at 7 p.m. Wednesday and runs through Dec. 11 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 to $45. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org