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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 becomes laudible.''

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.  

Category: November 1983 | Added by: Lis (03.02.2010)
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