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Mamet's American Buffalo Opens at the Geffen Playhouse!

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About two weeks ago I wrote a rather scathing, almost angry review on Huffington about David Mamet's HBO film, which he wrote and directed, on the possible murder of an actress by music mogul Phil Spector. Angry, yes, because I know how good Mamet can be when he's cooking on all cylinders. You see, many years ago, in late October of 1983, I reviewed a Broadway production of David Mamet's American Buffalo with Al Pacino and said that this play was an absolute masterpiece and Mamet was the greatest living American playwright. (Sorry, Edward Albee, but I still think it was true.) That was a revival of an off-Broadway show I had first seen several years earlier, which knocked me off my feet. Mamet has said of writing it:

I used to spend a lot of time with hustlers and thieves. A play set among them is, like a play set among the super-rich, in politics, or among kings and queens, or in Oz, a device which lets us participate fully. it means, 'once upon a time.'

On Wednesday evening, I attended a production of his play at the wondrous Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave, Westwood, (310) 208-5454) -- the first such production in L.A. in a dozen years. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, actor Al Pacino was not available to star in this production as he has done for Mamet so many times in the past. The artistic director of the Geffen, Randall Arney, excellently directed this fresh look at three misguided misfits -- smalltime hustlers in a Chicago junk shop -- who are a little out-of-luck and way out of their league as they plan the theft of a cache of rare coins. I remember noting at the time I first saw it that it had little plot and few sentences or words of more than one-syllable. The three characters were not very coherent, but obviously the playwright was. Frank Rich in the New York Times once said:

Mamet created a combustible and sympathetic portrait of inarticulate American underclass dreamers -- men whose ambitions to make big money through 'free enterprise' are as doomed as the buffaloes on the nickels they covet.

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Ron Eldard, Freddie Rodriguez, Bill Smitrovich on stage at the Geffen.

As I watched the show last night, I could not help thinking of the several versions of the lead role which Pacino brought to us over the years. Controlling, manipulative, full of weird little gestures. He is an actor whom I originally discovered and brought to Broadway in a play I produced. But that's not fair to Ron Eldard, who gives a very credible and even moving performance here as Teach, one of the three misfits. The last time I had seen Ron was in the Broadway production of Doubt, written by my buddy John Patrick Shanley -- who has written a screenplay for my proposed remake of Bell, Book & Candle. (Shanley has been compared by some to Mamet.)

Actually, I think of Mamet as in a league with Harold Pinter, whose play, The Birthday Party, we filmed at Palomar-ABC Pictures in the late '60s with Billy Friedkin directing. Coincidentally, Friedkin will be directing this Pinter play here at the Geffen next February.) The other two members of the current cast, Freddie Rodriguez and Bill J. Smitrovich, are also absolutely right on in their characterizations. In a very powerful, sympathetic portrayal, Bill plays Don, who owns the shop and has sold a coin to a man for what he suspects is far less than it was worth. (He looks incredibly like Rod Steiger in the movie I did some years ago about W.C. Fields).

Freddie, full of ticks and twitches, ably plays Bobbie, his druggie go-fer, who joins him in a plan to steal back the coin. But Teach, a poker buddy of Don's, persuades him that Bobbie is too inexperienced to pull it off... and he should do it instead, going for the whole coin collection. It goes on from there, with the search for an unseen fourth character.

Arney has given it a violent vitality, which has been lacking from some adaptations in recent years. The setting for the play by Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata was perfect, a junk shop from hell. (Spoiler here: In the course of the play, one of the characters almost destroys the set. I couldn't help thinking of the poor production assistant who had to rebuild it every evening.) The lighting by Daniel Ionazzi was fine, and I was amused to see a first for me, a "violence designer," in this case Ned Mochel. All were among the best I have seen with this perennial work.

david mamet

David Mamet

I must confess that I much prefer this play to Mamet's later, more acclaimed work, Glengarry Glen Ross, the real estate shark pool of a drama. Emblematic of Mamet's writing style, the dialogue here is terse and often vulgar. Lots of dirty curse words. But it works naturally for the situation and the characters. (In the 1996 film, Dustin Hoffman played Teach and the vulgarity was muted.) Mamet has asked here the most crucial question any dramatist could pose -- do values exist? And quietly and unsentimentally, he answered in the affirmative. Even in a junk shop in a Westwood theatre.

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Bill Smitrovich and Freddy Rodriguez in an exchange.

My lovely companion, Alison Miller, asked me if I thought this play was appropriate for teenagers. I've thought about that all evening and reached the conclusion that it was almost essential for mature teenagers to see such a searing, interesting and evocative play. It could open up a world of drama for them which would enrich their lives forever... or so I hope. After all, isn't that the purpose of great drama... to open up our world to its infinite possibilities?

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