Considering plot alone, the play many consider writer David Mamet's finest work, "American Buffalo" now at Baltimore's Center Stage, may seem a bit...lacking. A pawn shop owner and his two friends plan a robbery, there's an altercation, the heist never happens, the injured party waits to be taken to a hospital. The end.
The strength of Mamet's work, which won the New York Drama Critics Award for best play in 1977, lies in the insights he gives audiences into the darker, seedier elements of man's nature through dialogue that is both cutting and comical, sharp and subtle. To cite Wikipedia, Mamet uses language with a "cynical, street-smart edge, precisely crafted for effect...so distinctive that it has come to be called Mamet speak."
Consider these quotes from "Teach" (Jordan Lage), aptly named as he spends the majority of the play offering his obscenity-laced insights into issues ranging from business to loyalty to friendship, like Socrates played by Joe Pesci:
Teach: We're talking about money for Christ's sake, we're talking about cards. Friendship is friendship and a wonderful thing and I'm all for it. I never said different, and you know me on this thing, but let's just keep it separate, OK? Let's keep the two apart and we can deal with each other like some human beings.
Don (William Hill), the junk shop proprietor, has his own moments as a teacher, with Bob (Rusty Ross), apparently the only student:
Don: there's business and there's friendship, Bobby. Watcha gotta do is keep clear of who your friends are and who treated you like what or else because the rest is garbage, Bobby. I'll tell you somethin'.
Don: Things are not always what they seem to be.
Bob: I know that, Don.
Don: Because there are people on this street - they want this, they want that. Do anything to get it. You don't have friends this life.
Don and Teach envision themselves as sages of the street, men of business, when in reality they are small, petty individuals who'd sell out anyone, friend or foe, if they believe it in their best interest. There is irony here as Bob (usually called "Bobby"), who exhibits a Lennie-in-Of-Mice-and-Men simplicity and is clearly at the bottom of the pecking order, running errands for Don, speaking as through a fog, who has the most to teach the other characters.
Despite the older men's pontifications, it is Bobby who in his desire to impress Don, offers the most valuable lesson. Feeling he's failed Don, Bobby presents his would-be mentor with a Buffalo nickel to replace the one Don feels he has "lost," having sold it for a mere $90 to a coin dealer. When Bobby tells the truth about the missing Fletcher, the unseen fourth character of the play, he is attacked by Teach for his trouble. But these lessons, on the true nature of truth and friendship, are just pearls before swine. Don and Teach just don't get it...which is why they are where they are, each in a ruined life that is well-represented by Don's shop, wrecked by a rampaging Teach, by play's end.
Lage, Ross and Hill each deliver strong performances, particularly Lage as Teach who never seems to stop moving, pacing in Don's shop like the proverbial caged animal, dancing like a boxer, bopping and weaving while peppering the air with his vulgarities.
The audience also particularly enjoyed a scene that actually involved no dialogue at all, but Hill's Don, exhibiting a near pathological fastidiousness in cleaning one of the many bits of detritus that fills his shop.
Kudos to Center Stage's artistic team for the highly detailed set, right down to the hanging chairs and piles of '70s era junk, old record players and powder-blue Samsonite. If there's any doubt to the play's era, costume designer Kathleen Geldard removed it with Teach's long faux leather coat, striped pants and oversized collared shirt.
American Buffalo continues its run at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore, now through Dec. 11th. Tickets are $10-$45 and can be ordered online at www.centerstage.org/buffalo or call 410-332-0033.