`Buffalo' needs a bit more bite

Hit-or-miss: Mamet's first breakthrough piece falls just short of its powerful potential in a local performance.

June 03, 1999|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

David Mamet's "American Buffalo" is a gritty, poetic (though often profane) and explosive play that doesn't quite explode in the Performing Arts Group's production at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback.

This three-character drama made Mamet's name when it debuted in the mid-1970s, and it bears many of the Mamet hallmarks: terse language, action-oriented characters, a plot with a scam.

In this case, the scam never quite comes off: Things go awry when the ineffective thieves begin to suspect that they are the ones getting taken.

The title refers to a buffalo head nickel found in a junk shop. Shop owner Donny Dubrow (played by Mark Bernier) has sold the rare coin to a collector for $90, but is plotting to break into the collector's house; wounded pride and law-of-the-jungle opportunism are his motivations.

Donny's dim-witted gofer Bobby (Anthony Scimonelli) is to help on the job -- that is, until a more seasoned burglar known as Teach (Tony Colavito) persuades Donny to take him on and drop Bobby altogether.

The play's remarkable language is full of aggression and crackpot street philosophy as these entry-level tough guys tell each other what's what.

Director Sue Kramer's cast talks the talk effectively, but they over-interpret the characters with a lot of aimless shuffling and mannered gestures that too often make the show more about acting than about storytelling.

Scimonelli's Bobby has his hair in braids and his mind on hip-hop, but as played the character is way too slow for Donny to plausibly trust him to run for coffee, much less help with a break-in.

Colavito's Teach is wiry, restless, and even funny now and then. But he's not terribly combustible, which is a problem since Teach is the drama's TNT.

As Donny, Bernier gives the most direct, unaffected performance, and his simplicity pays off.

But for a tightly constructed play about an impending crime, the show is weirdly low-key -- even the wary, prowling exchanges between Teach and Donny -- until the middle of the second act.

The professional cast is supported by a student and alumni design and tech crew, which is a constructive arrangement for a college-based company.

Nischom Silverman's sound design puts street noise underneath the dialogue, and the set (by Bryce Blair and the director) renders Donny's shop as extremely neat.

The original music by Silverman and Aaron Michael Broderick wasn't available for last weekend's performances, but is scheduled to be part of the rest of the run, which ends June 13.

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