If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan


One of playwright David Mamet’s earliest stage successes, “American Buffalo”, is currently being given a competent production at Hartford TheaterWorks.  The Mamet classic began life at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1975 and moved two years later to Broadway with John Savage, Robert Duvall and Kenneth McMillan in the cast.  Area audiences also recall Al Pacino’s scorching performance in the much-acclaimed Long Wharf Theatre revival back in 1980.  The play is a timeless classic; one of Mamet’s best and most accessible plays.

Set in a cluttered junk shop where Donny (John Ahlin) hosts card games with fellow low-lives of the neighborhood, “American Buffalo” soon reveals Don’s plans to steal a valuable coin collection with the help of his jittery pal Teach (Andrew Benator) and dim-bulb protégé Bobby (Zachary Spicer).   As the play unfolds, the three men descend into a downward spiral of ineptitude as it becomes clear that neither of them is capable of stealing a pack of gum from the local drug store, let alone a pricey collectible.  Mamet’s profane, testosterone-fueled dialogue is urban poetry at its best and the three-member cast at TheaterWorks - under the capable direction of Steve Campo – rarely waste a syllable of the playwright’s verbal gold.

What is missing is this polished and quite funny revival, however, is a sense of tension, of real danger lurking just outside the shop and within its characters.  While Mr. Benator wrings every possible laugh out of Mamet’s bleakly funny script, we never get the feeling that his Teach is a lit fuse ready to explode.  He’s more comical that dangerous and that’s a key flaw in the performance.  When a burst of violence erupts from the character late in the play, it doesn’t ring true since we’ve seen little in the nature of Teach to prepare us for the moment.  As a result, the violent action delivers only a muted blow.

Mr. Ahlin, terrific in the theatre’s wonderful production of “The Seafarer” last season, is more successful in making Donny as world-weary and desperate as he should be while Mr. Spicer, as his spaced-out assistant, gives the play’s most accomplished performance.  His Bobby is vulnerable without being sentimental, mentally limited without dissolving into caricature.  It’s very good work.  Also laudatory is Adrian W. Jones’ meticulous mess of a set filled from top to bottom and side to side with visual junk yard delights.   The effective fluorescent-style lighting is by Mathew Richards.

While there is much here to recommend, TheaterWorks’ comedy of menace ultimately seems to be too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter.

“American Buffalo” has already been extended through October 25th at Hartford TheaterWorks.  For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.527.2009 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning September 23, 2009.

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