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American Buffalo: The Patriot Act at A.C.T.

By Melissa Broder

Inspired by confessional neurotics such as Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen, the postmodern arts have come to resemble private diary entries; yet the finest playwright is still able to transform a personal notion into a universal theme. David Mamet's American Buffalo, which premiered in Chicago in 1975, exceeds the barriers of class, location and time, presenting audiences with a suspicious analysis of the American dream. In the vein of his predecessor Edward Albee, Mamet chooses depth over quantity when creating his characters. Buffalo's plot centers around a day in the life of three men at a junk shop, who plan a robbery in order to make a good old American buck. The buffalo-head nickel, which inspires the robbery, serves as a metaphor for the cutthroat nature of our capitalist structure. Clearly, Mamet's characters value a financial end over an ethical means of achievement, creating a striking parallel to the recent Enron and WorldCom scandals.

"Businessmen left [American Buffalo] muttering vehemently about its inadequacies and pointlessness," said Mamet, one year after the show opened on Broadway in 1977. "But they weren't really mad because the play was pointless-they were angry because the play was about them."

Two decades later, San Francisco's A.C.T. theatre presents a well-casted, socially relevant performance of American Buffalo. Director Richard E.T. White creates a close juxtaposition between humor and intensity, such that the audience often doesn't know whether to laugh or gasp. Chicago native Matt DeCaro serves as the anchor of the play in his role as junk shop owner Don Dubrow. On a physical level, Decaro's Don possesses a plump, balding quality that is undeniably a caricature of a middle-age American. In terms of character development, Decaro recognizes the importance of emotional complexity in captivating the attention of an audience. Don is shrewd, morally-relative, and often violent, yet he simultaneously exhibits a paternal quality. This multiplicity is especially important for Decaro's Don, because he serves as the voice of the play's themes.

"'Cause there's business and there's friendship Bobby," says Don to his young apprentice. "Things are not always what they seem to be…There's lotsa people on this street, Bob, they want this and they want that. Do anything to get it. You don't have friends this life."

The character of Bobby, played by recent A.C.T. graduate Damon Seawell, is clearly symbolic of a nascent American dream: innocent, hopeful, and subject to corruption. Like DeCaro, Seawell is physically well-casted, exhibiting the youth and naiveté inherent to his character. Further, Seawell recognizes his role as a foil, or mirror, to the other characters, and he does not upstage his castmates. Yet Seawell's Bobby possesses an emotional temperament that remains stock throughout the play. Rather than evoking sadness, Seawell's shaky physicality and stuttering verbal temperament exist as constants, creating distraction and discomfort. Such feelings are catalyzed by a plethora of fake blood toward the end of the play. While Director White may intend to create discomfort in the audience, one is left to focus on the abundance of blood, rather than on the climax and denouement of the plot.

Aside from the misuse of synthetic secretions, scenic designer Ken Dorsey's props and set are aesthetically intelligent. Some of the credit may be given to Mamet, who intentionally carries out the play in the characters' place of work. The junk shop setting conveys that life in America cannot be separated from financial enterprise. Further, the friendly gestures that occur between the men dwell strictly in the realm of commercial endeavors: the purchase of a cup of coffee, breakfast, or the buffalo-head nickel. Dorsey brings these notions into the set, such that each piece of furniture used by the characters is an item that Don is attempting to sell. From the sofa to the desk, the characters' daily lives are clearly inseparable from commerce. Further, the sound-effects that designate the passing of time are all similarly industrialized, such as a car engine or police siren.

The real tragedy of Buffalo is conveyed by the character Teach, and his inability to change. Teach, played by A.C.T. core Acting Company member Marco Barricelli, depicts both a polarity of thought and a continued reliance on muscle that are each evident within American culture. Barricelli is clearly a seasoned talent, with a knack for exuding simultaneous humor, violence, and tragedy. Like American pop culture, Teach possesses a sensational quality; yet his character is especially relevant in light of our country's current political situation. In the White House, we have George W. Bush, and his steadfast devotion to war with Iraq; Onstage, we have Teach, who "buffalows" his way through life in pursuit of money. The motives of the two men-one fictional, one real-possess a striking similarity, maintaining Buffalo's significance as a cultural compass.

American Buffalo runs through February 9th at The American Conservatory Theatre. Tickets are available for Tuesday - Thursday and Sunday evening performances ($15 - $49) and Friday and Saturday matinee and evening performances ($19 - $61). To purchase tickets, contact the Box Office at: 415.749.2228. A.C.T. is located on 415 Geary Street @ Mason, in San Francisco. For more information, visit their website at: www.act-sf.org.