David Mamet’s American Buffalo was one of his first works written in 1975 and opening on Broadway in 1977. It examines the dissatisfaction of existing within a high capitalist society and resonates with the impossibility of attaining the American dream.
Donny Dubrow (Nicholas Stribakos), a junk-shop proprietor and surrogate father to recovering junkie Bobby (Alex Cooper), has fallen on hard times. Complications ensue when Dubrow conspires to steal a coin from a wealthy individual who had originally bought it from his store at a high price. Dubrow enlists the help of his companion, Teach (Michael Collins) and they scheme to steal it back.
Mamet’s writing is dense and fast paced, riddled with colloquialisms and phrases specific to his cultural milieu. Unfortunately, this intricate dialogue was rendered slow, with lugubrious pauses throughout the performance. Pacing issues resulted in a separation between spectators and the action of the piece, undercutting the work’s dramatic conflict.
Certainly, there are similarities to be found between the content of American Buffalo and the current Australian political climate; Abbott’s raging neoliberalism, for one. However, the specificities of the American vernacular appeared inappropriate in an Australian setting and with Australian accents. The precise iambic rhythm of the original dialogue – reflecting the speech patterns of the American underclass – was lost by the actors during the performance. Ultimately, the rhythm of Mamet’s writing exposed the central cultural difference within in the script, detracting from the intentioned intercultural parallel.
Mamet’s piece feels as though it belongs in a shoebox – it is compressed and volatile. Yet the feeling of this pressure-cooker work was sabotaged by the comparatively expansive space of the La Mama Courthouse.
There were some strong performances however. Cooper in particular evoked a believable Bobby, whose honest attempts to come clean and make himself useful in the eyes of Dubrow evoked sympathy. This strong acting was subverted by some of the direction (Tony Reck), which at times felt superfluous to the action of the piece.
Ultimately, American Buffalo is a piece with the potential to function as a commentary on Australian society, but is rendered awkward through its cultural-specificities, slow rhythm and at times unnecessary movement.