The anatomy of a sucker punch: ‘American Buffalo’ explores good faith gone bad

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In German, there’s a word for a face that begs for a punch: backpfeifengesicht. At some point in David Mamet’s play “American Buffalo,” every character has a backpfeifengesicht — and the Aurora Theatre Company’s revival of the 1975 classic throws punches of every kind — whether those of the narrative sort or the fist-to-face variety — with expert impact.

“American Buffalo” chronicles a day in the life of Donny, Bobby and Teach, three petty Chicago crooks whose well-intentioned heist schemes soon turn sour. Donny (Paul Vincent O’Connor) is the proprietor of a deteriorating junk shop in which all of the play’s scenes are staged, where they unfold amidst the flotsam and jetsam of possessions long since abandoned.

The characters of “American Buffalo,” like the merchandise at Don’s Resale Shop, are castaways. First, there’s Bobby (Rafael Jordan), the shop boy and junkie whom Donny treats with the affectionate paternalism of a football coach or favorite uncle. Jordan’s Bobby is knit-browed and painfully earnest, the recipient of Donny’s fatherly mentorship on subjects ranging from the health benefits of yogurt to the distinction between friendship and business. Rounding out the trio is Teach, Donny’s longtime friend and partner in (literal) crime, played with vigor by Bay Area theater veteran James Carpenter. Teach dons the decade’s finest regalia, including a moustache, aviator glasses, bell bottoms and leather jacket, but Carpenter is anything but a caricature of ’70s swagger. Instead, he commands the stage with unsettling dynamism — we never quite know if Teach means what he says or says what he means.

This doublespeak is characteristic of Mamet’s signature style of dialogue, in which conversations are most always rapid-fire, often witty and peppered with enough profanity to make even a sailor blush. O’Connor, Jordan and Carpenter handle the demanding script with rhythmic ease. As dialogue ricochets between Donny, Bobby and Teach, the narrative and its themes ripen just below the surface.

Contrary to what the title suggests, there are no mammalian buffalo involved in “American Buffalo.” Instead, the title refers to the Buffalo nickel, a valuable coin that Donny unwittingly sells to a coin collector for far less than market value. Hoping to recover from the fumbled transaction, Donny and Teach hatch a garden-variety burglary plot. Teach, along with Lester (a character in name only who never appears onstage), will break into the customer’s home and repossess the coin, along with any other valuables of interest. The loot will be promptly resold to an interested buyer, leaving the men to divvy up a sizeable profit among themselves.

As the night wears on, the haphazard scheme proceeds in fits and starts — until it falls apart entirely. Teach is late because his watch is broken. Bobby, whose role in the operation Teach has since assumed, shows up at Donny’s shop anyway. Lester never shows up at all. Neither the audience nor the characters know with certainty what is going on. As Donny and Teach speculate, accusations of disloyalty mount, and suspicions come to a boil. Did Lester carry out the burglary on his own? Is guileless Bobby actually Lester’s co-conspirator? Has Teach been playing double agent all along?

In its final minutes, “American Buffalo” builds to an explosive climax. There is blood. There is broken glass. There is even a broken jaw. Most severely fractured, however, is the trust among the men. Donny, who was so quick to lecture Bobby about the line between friendship and business, has learned his own lesson: Greed will always poison good faith at a human cost far greater than that of any Buffalo nickel.

“American Buffalo” is playing at the Aurora Theatre Company until July 20.


Contact Sarah Adler at [email protected].

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