The messy emotions in David Mamet's "American Buffalo" find material expression in the 1970s-era junk that fills every messy square foot of a Chicago pawn shop. Some of this clutter even hangs from the front of the stage, as if threatening to spill over into the audience at Centerstage.
No thanks for the offer of junk, 'cause we already have enough at home. Thanks, though, for a boisterous production that effectively reflects the urban culture of the decade in which this early Mamet play was written.
It also remains a raw and vital play, thanks to the well-matched performances of William Hill as Don, the reasonably affable middle-aged owner of the pawn shop; Rusty Ross as Don's friend Bob, a less than brilliant young man who can be relied upon to bungle any business deal, including one involving the play's title-referenced old nickel; and Jordan Lage as Teach, the volatile petty criminal whose ruthlessness and profanity know no bounds.
Mamet's trademark dialogue is on ripe display here. The obscenity-laced banter in the first act is by turns funny and ominous. These three guys are passing the time with this quirky mix of jokes, plans and threats. Although they're not articulate by conventional standards or genteel by any standard, they get their points across.
"American Buffalo" is a character study that's resolutely a chamber piece in its claustrophobic emphasis on the non-stop bickering between these guys. The outside world is never really seen through the shop's dingy window, and even the planning for their shady scams is discussed in such an expletive-laden shorthand that you're never entirely sure about some of the unseen characters and convoluted scheming.
The actors bring such gritty persuasiveness to their roles that you appreciate the bits of character detail that add up to a convincing whole. Just as all the small objects piled high in the shop collectively have a weighty presence, this production will call your attention to such character-defining physical elements as Don's ample gut, Bob's scrawny frame, and the leather jacket-sporting Teach's wild animal aggressiveness.
You sense how Don has a protective attitude toward the younger Bob, as if seeking to educate him in the customs of the Chicago underworld. Teach is another matter, because his code of business ethics is delivered via pronouncements uttered with machine gun-fast ferocity and, for that matter, he's got an actual gun to back up his words. Teach's philosophy is Darwinian "survival of the fittest" as filtered through David Mamet's four-letter words.
Although director Liesl Tommy and the strong cast do a fine job of bringing out the meandering, profane comedy in the first act, they could do more to convey the disturbing tensions that exist between these three men. The threatening gestures and raised voices are certainly in place now, but somehow there's not quite enough of a dangerous edge to some of their conversations.
The anger needs to simmer more in the first act, so that the more action-oriented second act explodes with fully justified force. By stressing the admittedly comic moments in the first act, this production currently gives the second act's violent incidents an almost tacked-on feeling.
Fortunately, the second act still literally packs just enough of a dramatic punch in this production. As the actors fight, bleed and even foam at the mouth, you'll have the visceral realization that this remains one of David Mamet's most powerful plays.
It's not a pretty scene, but that's Chicago for you.
"American Buffalo" runs through Dec. 11 at Centerstage, at 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore. Tickets are $10- $45. Call 410-332-0033 or go to http://www.centerstage.org/buffalo.