By SHARON EBERSON
Even as hell breaks loose in the Mamet masterwork American Buffalo, it is funny as hell, and full of heart.
How perfect, then, that Patrick Jordan’s barebones productions ends its 20th year with this actor’s actor piece, packed with punchy, ping-pong dialogue, loony characters, unexpected laughs and the feeling of impending danger enveloping the whole deliciously lowlife trio.
With a top-of-their-games cast going full-throttle at crackling dialogue, this production is a feast for fans of the David Mamet of yore, before he soured on tales of desperate men clawing their way through a world stacked against them.
In the character of “Teach,” he created one of the juiciest roles in American theater, and one that Jordan dives into with gusto.
We can almost taste the rage coiled within Teach’s desperate machismo, so inherent is it in Jordan’s every move. Once Teach is on the scene, the expectation of violence or a laugh-out-loud disdain for logic is the most likely outcome.
The dynamic duo of Jordan and David Whalen, as shop owner and petty criminal Donny, are at the top of their respective games, conquering Mamet’s break-neck pace and “profane poetry,” in a thrilling display of serve-and-volley dialogue. As excellent as these two were nearly a decade ago in the gripping drama A Steady Rain, circa 2014, they light up the stage like a reunion of rock’ n’ roll royalty.
Bringing the best out of her cast then as now is Melissa Martin, teaming once again with lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski. Along with longtime set designer Tony Ferrieri, the creative collaborators have once again hit a sweet spot for barebones.
New to the company is actor Brenden Peifer, the Pitt alum who has had a busy 2023 via Shakespearen productions (Pittsburgh Public Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem and Quantum Theatre’s Hamlet).
As American Buffalo’s endearingly clueless Bobby, he is so gullible and sweet-natured, that when Teach enters the scene, Peifer – despite towering over his fellow actors – allows Bobby to fade by degrees.
It is evident that Teach is jealous of anyone who has earned Donny’s friendship and trust. On the too-rare occasions when Donny calls him out, Teach’s knee-jerk reaction is, “Don’t you trust me?”
This, it turns out, is Teach’s ace card, because who but a ride-or-die pal would ever trust a guy like Teach? Jordan’s Teach comes on like a bull in a china shop, a constant threat to his friend and his surroundings.
And there’s beauty amid the shabbiness of Donny’s junk shop, a tribute to Ferrieri and Ostrowski’s work in creating a place that would be as inviting to collectors, card-playing friends or pals planning to steal and fence a rare coin collection, and regain a buffalo nickel that Donny let slip away.
In barebones’ intimate Braddock space, audience members are guided through the well-stocked shop to get to their seats. The illusion of the outdoors, with steps leading to the entrance, expands the world as characters talk of friends and places beyond our sight.
Our introduction to Donny and Bobby’s relationship is of an older man trying to be a good influence in a misguided young man’s life. We also learn that Donny’s intention is to have Bobby commit a burglary. While Donny is trying to get Bobby to quit smoking and eat healthy foods, it is never stated that breaking and entering might not be good for his health.
In any case, when Teach enters the scene, Bobby is out, while Teach and the unseen Fletcher are in.
It’s just business – a subject close to Teach’s heart.
His idea of free enterprise, he explains, “is the freedom of the Individual to embark on any f*cking course that he sees fit, in order to secure his honest chance to make a profit.”
Donny agrees wholeheartedly.
Although these characters go through life under a dark cloud, it is a great feat of the play and this cast’s beguiling delivery that you can’t help but laugh at the bombardment of contradictions and twisted logic.
It is easy to see why American Buffalo has long been on Jordan’s dance card.
With timing and body language in perfect sync, Jordan nails a character that is comedic in his lack of self-awareness while also exuding an air of danger. It’s a role that has been played to acclaim by the likes of Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Gary Sinise and, last year, in a Tony-nominated turn by Sam Rockwell. In Pittsburgh, New York actor Robert Turano came home to play Teach for the defunct Playhouse Rep in 2006.
As Donny, Whalen often plays straight man to Jordan while also excelling at the quick turn from benevolence to all business. That he would befriend volatile Teach and sweet-natured Bobby feeds his complex character.
Of course, plans go terribly awry for these three misfits, all the better for us to revel in their oddball camaraderie for an hour and 45 minutes (including intermission).This production of American Buffalo, opening as the holiday season is moments away, and isn’t exactly in the spirit of merriment. However, it is a theatrical triumph, and that is something we can all be thankful for, in any season.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Barebones Productions’ American Buffalo is at barebones black box theater, 1211 Braddock Ave. in Braddock, Thursdays-Sundays, through December 10, 2023. Tickets: $40 through December 3 and $50 December 7 – 10. https://www.barebonesproductions.com/americanbuffalo