Chekhov for today: David Mamet's 'American Buffalo'

The cast of Dorset Theatre Festival’s “American Buffalo”: Oliver Palmer, Treat Williams and Stephen Adly Guirgis. PROVIDED PHOTO

David Mamet’s classic “American Buffalo” is a halting, and often very funny tale of capitalism among the dredges of society — perhaps mirroring the workings of those more successful. “Don’t you think it’s the perfect play for the age in which we live?” asks John Gold Rubin, who is directing the Dorset Theatre Festival production. “It would have been a revival until this year,” he said. “Suddenly it’s a new play. Events have inspired to make it contemporary. The gloves are off.” Dorset’s production, which runs Aug. 24 to Sept. 2, benefits from a stellar cast: Broadway star and Vermont resident Treat Williams, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Stephen Adly Guirgis; and newcomer Oliver Palmer. Rubin is artistic director of New York City’s The Private Theatre. “American Buffalo” premiered in 1975 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and moved to Broadway in 1977. A 1996 feature film adaptation, directed by Michael Corrente, starred Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson, and was produced by Gregory Mosher, director of the theatrical version. The entire play takes place in Don’s Resale Shop, a junk shop in Chicago, on one Friday. Donny Dubrow, the owner, has sold a buffalo nickel to a customer for $90, but now thinks it’s worth a lot more. He and Bobby, his young gofer, decide to steal it back. However, Walter “Teach” Cole, a poker buddy of Donny’s, insists that Bobby is too young, and can’t be trusted. And furthermore, they should go for the entire coin collection. For Rubin, the play is propelled more by characters than its plot. He sees Bobby (Palmer) as a former drug user, but probably not now. “I think his salvation is in his relationship with Donny, and that says something about Donny. Bobby is in a state of grace as long as he can remain in the good favor of Donny. He’s just utterly, utterly grateful for the attention, the favor and support he gets from Donny. Donny’s like his godfather, a patriarch. He sees salvation in that relationship, and that’s why he goes to such extraordinary lengths to preserve it.” Donny (Guirgis) gets his greatest satisfaction being the host of his world, Rubin said. “Having Bobby look up to him like his surrogate son is his relatively new, maybe sixor eight-month pleasure. It gives him a motivation, and he loves it.” “Teach” (Williams), Rubin said, is a pathological megalomaniac. “He’s just entirely focused on getting what he wants. He doesn’t really hear what’s around him, except what he wants to hear. And he’s entirely focused on this heist,” Rubin said. “And that overwhelming egocentricity is balanced by an incredible vulnerability. He’s a terribly sensitive guy who can be a pugnacious bastard.” Al three characters are extremes. “The virtue of the cast that I have is that they can actually play these like real people,” Rubin said. “They’re not playing caricatures, they’re not playing characters, they are able to embody these people in the idiosyncrasy of their behavior, but also in the uniqueness of their looks, their appearance.’ Unusually, for this production, Dorset is seating part of the audience on the stage. “It’s going to be in-the-round and it’s a very austere setting,” Rubin said. “There’s a kind of a (Irish playwright Samuel) Beckett feeling to it — where Beckett is taken in great reverence by too many people, not being seen for his humor. “I think that’s true of Mamet too, that bleak humor, that existential humor,” Rubin said. “This is the entire world. There is no life outside this room.” Still, Rubin finds this play is most analogous to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. “It is treated reverentially when, in fact, Chekhov is driven by character,” Rubin said. “The plot in Chekhov is a function of character drive, and that is precisely true in this play. It’s these characters, it’s their astonishing need for things that are, for the rest of the world, relatively insignificant or abhorrent. “It’s so needy that the moments of repose are hysterical,” Rubin said. DORSET THEATRE FESTIVAL Dorset Theatre Festival presents David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” Aug. 24- Sept. 2 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Aug. 30, and Saturday, Sept. 2. Tickets are $39-$45; call 802-867- 2223, ext. 2, or go online to dorsettheatrefestival.org.

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