American Buffalo

Fortune Theatre - Hutchinson Studio, Dunedin

31/10/2006 - 04/11/2006

Production Details

by David Mamet
directed by Andrew Morrison


Written in 1975, American Buffalo is a landmark play, essentially a modern [im]morality tale, portraying the dysfunctional social dynamic between three small-time crooks as they plot an il-fated heist from a junk shop. Since its premiere 31 years ago, the play has intrigued, baffled and thrilled audiences with its obscenity-laced vernacular, absurd humour and pornography of violence. Without ever mentioning politics, Mamet has written a deeply political play in which business and crime are equated and in which profit becomes an alibi for theft.

Don      Mark Neilson
Teach   Andrew Morrison
Bob      Henry Davidson

Stage Manager           H-J Kilkelly
Set Design                   Andrew Cook
Set Construction         Andrew Cook
                                     Jeffrey Vaughan
                                    Glenn Ross
                                    Andrew Morrison
Lighting Design          Corey Anderson
Operator                     Alia Berkeley
Wardrobe                   Roz McKechnie
Photography              Reg Graham
Front of House           Murray Robertson
                                     Alison Finigan

Theatre ,

Shocking and satisfying

Review by Terry MacTavish 08th Nov 2006

Chuckle and shudder. Comedy of Menace. A couple of people in a room, and outside that room an unknown and frightening world looms. Incessant desperate talk to fill the silence, to hide from the emptiness and futility of the ludicrously petty lives somehow endured. Perhaps there is the potential for real communication, but the risk is too great. Friendship loses out to mere survival.

American Buffalo, which is set in a Chicago junk store, is the Mamet play that strikes me as most akin to Pinter. First produced in 1975, it had much the same impact on American theatre as The Caretaker had on British. It is described as a political morality play, in which sordid business ethic justifies any criminal activity, but this enthralling production at the Fortune is, more than anything, a brilliant character study. And full of surprising wit and humour. As Pinter said, "Horror and absurdity go together."

Nothing actually happens. Three pathetic pieces of human junk, small-time crooks, come briefly to life as they plan a robbery which has no chance of succeeding yet is discussed with passionate intensity. Junk store owner Don thinks he has been cheated into selling a nickel, the American Buffalo, for less than it is worth, and plans to steal it back with the inept assistance of first his hopeless young assistant Bobby and then his streetsmart associate, known as Teach.

This production started life at the Globe Theatre, where it was, as we say, a critical and box-office success, but in the close embrace of Fortune’s Hutchinson Studio it seems right at home. Designer Andrew Cook, as ever endlessly ingenious, has created my favourite kind of set, a junk shop overflowing with hideous but fascinating flotsam. Every piece seems chosen with care, not merely historically accurate, but slyly winking with symbolic significance, from the Pat Boone LP to the birdcage. If only the machine-gun pace of the dialogue had permitted me to simply stare; it was positively frustrating to have to guess at how many treasures were yet to be spotted.

As proprietor Don, Mark Neilson casually commands the set, lounging back bull-necked, crisp-curled, somehow reminiscent of a buffalo himself. His essentially benign bullying of his ‘gopher’ Bobby as he gobbles his yoghurt degenerates to cruel indifference when the boy blunders. Neilson finely balances the brutality with impotent misery when he suspects he has been cheated even by those he thought were friends. "You got to keep clear who your friends are, because the rest is garbage." He gives an exceptional performance, and his fans will be pleased to note he’s back in a vest again!

Director Andrew Morrison, theatrically prolific and ferociously talented, has made a remarkable impression on the Dunedin theatre scene in a comparatively short time. He has directed a wide range of productions with ever-developing assurance and in Buffalo, as well as directing, he plays seedy conman Teach with vicious accuracy. His immaculate physical control is a joy to watch and he has mastered the verbal dexterity demanded by the role, spewing out a torrent of words to cover Teach’s massive insecurity, not quite alienating us despite his foul-mouthed aggression: "Guys like that, I’d like to fuck their wives…The only way to teach these is to kill them."

The ugly Chicago accents of both actors never falter and they explode into physical violence with shocking ease and conviction. Much of the dark comedy comes from the screwed logic of their spitfire duologues.

Henry Davidson, the only actor not in the original cast, I last saw giving a heartbreakingly sweet performance in Beautiful Thing, and although it was difficult to believe that, as Bobby, he was a hardened ex-junkie, his puppydog vulnerability ensured the audience felt genuine concern for him. He began to seem spookily like one of the bits of junk, a saccharine 60s Woolworths print of a cute little boy in pyjamas, but his innocence is the foil for the self-delusional worldliness of his ‘mentors’.

This has been one of the year’s tightest and most integrated productions, shocking and satisfying in equal measure. As a stunning study of destructive loneliness it will linger on in my mind.


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