One of the surest ways of ending up with a minor play is to strive
to write a major play. On the other hand, a dramatist who seems determined
to be minor may sometimes produce major work. His or her play looks
weightless, sounds weightless, even feels weightless; and then you find that
it has inexplicably but indisputably tipped your mental and emotional scales.
It shrugs its way onto the stage, apologetically shuffles off it, and won't
be forgotten. An example from the 1960's would be Harold Pinter's ''The
Caretaker,'' which is, on the face of it, about nothing more than an elderly
tramp battening off two brothers. One from the 70's would be the two-hour
trifle just returned to Broadway: David Mamet's ''American Buffalo.''
It, too, presents you with three inconsiderable men in a room: specifically,
part-time crooks in a junk shop. It, too, expects you to be interested in
the twists of their relationships. It, too, has been called eventless,
plotless, themeless, everythingless; and it, too, seems to be confounding
those who patronized it with revival after revival, proof after proof of its
durability and resilience. Not only that, it is a play which actually
improves with use. On each of the dozen or so occasions I've encountered it
on page or stage it has revealed more of itself, shifted, modulated, grown.
And that, for me, is a powerful symptom of the theatrical masterpiece.
Even Arvin Brown's flawed production at the Booth cannot mask the play's
quality. It can survive the slovenliness that inevitably results when a
director or actor becomes over-preoccupied with the surface of things and
under-preoccupied with their essence. It can survive Al Pacino dropping his
voice, or talking through the audience's laughter, or otherwise making the
hustler Teach authentically inaudible, and it can survive Mr. Brown's
conscientious refusal to let his cast isolate, italicize or artfully point
up a telling line.
''American Buffalo,'' if you didn't know, concerns a misconceived,
ill-planned and abortive burglary, and the last time I saw it nothing caused
the house more hilarity than the news that the ace criminal on whose help
the main characters are relying has himself been mugged in the street. It
wasn't just funny; it perfectly summed up the gap between aspiration and
ability in the play's tiny, tawdry world. Yet here the line is tossed aside
as casually as Kleenex. So, indeed, is what I take to be the piece's
emotional denouement. More of this in a moment.
One must, then, sometimes strain both to catch Mr. Mamet's words and to give
them their proper weight. But the rewards for doing so are almost too
considerable. ''Duck Variations,'' ''Sexual Perversity in Chicago,'' ''Lakeboat'':
Mr. Mamet's ear for idiom, and especially the idiom of his native Illinois,
has long been so deadly that his critics have on occasion noticed nothing
else. Like Pinter, he has been accused of luxuriating in language for its
own sake. Like Pinter, he has in effect been abused for having perfect pitch,
excoriated for writing too convincingly. But ''American Buffalo,'' like ''The
Caretaker,'' seems answer enough in itself. Its idiom is precise enough to
evoke a city, a class, a subculture; it is imprecise enough to allow
variation of mood and feeling from production to production. Mr. Mamet gives
his actors both room to maneuver and the emotions to maneuver with. A blank
''yes'' or ''no,'' a seemingly repetitive four-letter word, may turn out to
be more charged and resonant than anyone could have predicted.
Not only that. One of the subjects of ''American Buffalo'' is the
exploitation of language itself. Again and again what's said is not really
what's thought, and is sometimes comically remote from what's meant. This
doesn't mean that the play is about ''failure of communication,'' that
tiresomely fashionable theme. On the contrary, the characters communicate
pretty effectively, but not always on the level their words profess. An
apology may be a way of putting a half-nelson on someone. The sententious
and sometimes sanctimonious diction that Teach affects - ''loyalty, you know
how I am on this, this is great, this is admirable'' - is partly an attempt
to disorient, ingratiate, manipulate and dominate, partly a means of
bolstering self-respect and evading what might threaten it. A curse word may
be a strategy for denying humanity to your victim and thus getting moral
satisfaction out of fleecing him. Language, in short, is how the mind
ensures that one's front-line feelings go into action safely camouflaged.
One could make much the same point about Pinter, too. That is not,
however, to say that Mr. Mamet is heavily influenced by him or, indeed, by
anyone else. Life is his tutor, and he has learned his own lessons from it,
as far as both language and ideas about language are concerned. Nor do his
interests stop there, whatever his critics may think, however deficient they
may find him intellectually. It was Edward Albee, I believe, who said he
showed little evidence of a mind as fine as his ear. The theatrical scholar
Ruby Cohn has rather similarly called Mr. Mamet ''virtually bare of ideas.''
The answer to that is that ideas aren't any less ideas for being lived out
rather than stated. Actually, if I've one criticism of ''American Buffalo,''
it is that its ideas are sometimes too explicit, too obvious.
''The play is about the American ethic of business,'' Mr. Mamet himself once
said. ''About how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and
ethical compromises called business.'' In fact, that could be the epigraph
to several of his plays, from ''The Water Engine,'' in which corrupt
money-men suppress a machine that costs nothing to run, to ''Glengarry Glen
Ross,'' now at the National Theater in London. This is probably Mr. Mamet's
most scathing piece to date, a comprehensive study of the real-estate shark
pool, where the only law is swallow or be swallowed. Beside its
razor-teethed salesmen, the characters of ''American Buffalo,'' though on or
over the criminal fringe, seem strangely scrupulous. At any rate, they have
to convince themselves that burglary is ''business'' and not a reason for ''shame.''
Indeed, Mr. Mamet's implied point is that, if crooks can identify with
businessmen then businessmen are probably crooks. As he has also said, ''There's
really no difference between the lumpen proletariat and stockbrokers or
corporate lawyers who are the lackeys of business. Part of the American myth
is that a difference exists, that at a certain point vicious behavior
But Mr. Mamet isn't simply a latter-day Dreiser, yearning to trim the
capitalist jungle. What really interests him in ''American Buffalo'' are the
shadowy, elusive frontiers between business and friendship, greed and
altruism and, dare one say, evil and good. Donny, who owns the junk shop,
plans to demonstrate his faith in his ex-junkie gofer, Bobby, by sending him
to rob a coin-collector. But Teach, who needs money, persuades him that this
is bad business and substitutes himself as burglar-in- chief. Everything
then proceeds to go awry; and, as it does so, Teach gradually sucks Donny
into his own embattled, paranoid world-view. All relationships are really ''business''
relationships. Even Bobby is repaying Donny's kindness with betrayal.
There's no trust, no friendship: ''We all live like the cavemen.''
It's a despairing analysis; and it is, I think, his despair that transforms
Teach from a two-dimensional hood into one of the richest characters in the
contemporary repertory. Behind the anger, the bravado, the violence, the
solemn rhetoric, there's an over-age infant dimly aware he can never claw
his way out of the urban trashcan. This insecurity, this unease is much
signaled by Mr. Pacino at the Booth. Black-eyed, mushroom- faced, he paces
the junk shop, looping his hands, jabbing with his fingers, nervously
stroking his hair, absently touching an old tennis racquet here, a bowling
pin there. So restless is he that one is tempted to repeat the advice Peter
Ustinov once gave a young Method actor: ''Don't just do something - stand
there!'' For one begins to wonder if Mr. Pacino's obsession with busy detail
doesn't explain his central failure, which is to embody that desperation, to
communicate the feeling of hanging by the fingernails over that ash-filled
abyss. One hears the voice of raging disillusion, one sees the gestures, but
one doesn't quite believe their source is the heart and stomach.
Yet the play is strong enough to survive both that and Mr. Brown's
disgracefully offhand treatment of its moral climax. Is Teach's glum
assessment of the human condition correct or not? Just as it begins to seem
so, the truth of Bobby's supposed treachery emerges. He did not, as Teach
believes, double-cross his partners-in- crime by stealing a valuable nickel
behind their backs: he bought it, ''for Donny.'' This is the line that James
Hayden's Bobby manages to drop, and the reason it matters is that it
represents the point at which an apparently unstoppable tide suddenly yet
naturally reverses itself. The world isn't, after all, exclusively populated
by cavemen and cannibals. There is loyalty and friendship, even down there,
in the lower depths.
The production does, however, do justice to
what follows, and that is fortunate, since it seems to me one of the most
touching and pregnant moments in contemporary drama. On the face of it,
nothing momentous happens. Mr. Hayden's Bobby, flustered and gawky as ever,
abjectly apologizes; and J. J. Johnston's Donny, pink and paternal, a sort
of Santa Claus without cape and beard, reassures him ''You did real good.''
But actually something rather momentous has happened. These people sense it,
and so perhaps can we. David Mamet has asked the most crucial question any
dramatist could pose - do values exist? - and quietly and unsentimentally
answered in the affirmative. All this in a small, unpretentious play
involving small, unpretentious people and set in a junk shop.
By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE