IMAGE: Owen Carey
“Someone is against me,” Teach, a gambler, thief and low-grade thug, bellows as he waves a brass poker, looking for something to smash. This is about 15 minutes into American Buffalo, David Mamet’s first nationally successful work, but it sums up the entire play. Teach (Tim True) and Donny (Bruce Burkhartsmeier), a pawn broker and owner of the poker, are not very smart guys. They’re crude, and not very good with money, and tend to live on the wrong side of the law. Most of all, they feel they’ve been betrayed, wrongly deprived of something—success, or maybe just attention—that was rightly theirs. If they lived today, they’d probably be big Glenn Beck fans, but this is ’70s Chicago, so their anger finds even less useful outlets, mostly at the expense of Bobby (Brian Weaver), Donny’s protégé.
Donny’s main gripe at this particular moment is that he thinks he was ripped off by a coin collector, who paid him $90 for a buffalo nickel, which he intends to steal back. It takes very little time for Donny and mostly Teach to fuck up the planning of the burglary beyond any chance of recovery, with much thrashing and screaming of “fuck.”
The play is a departure from Third Rail’s usual style. It’s the six-year-old company’s first production of a classic American play, and the first time that artistic director Scott Yarbrough has ceded control to another director. He picked a good one. Daniel Stern, the film and stage actor best known for his roles in City Slickers and Home Alone, pitched the show to Yarbrough after seeing Third Rail’s Dead Funny last season. Stern has an impressive command of Mamet’s language, wrangling the playwright’s fractured dialogue (the average sentence is four words long) into intelligible speech—a task that defeats most.
Stern also makes the best use of Tim True I’ve seen since The Lonesome West in 2006. True’s a talented, versatile actor, but he’s often cast as a plodding mope. Teach is anything but plodding—he’s a loose cannon, a feral mess of a man, a danger to himself and his friends. True’s performance is explosive and genuinely frightening. He left me rattled for a half-hour after leaving the theater.
SEE IT: American Buffalo at the World Trade Center theater, 121 SW Salmon St., 235-1101. Tickets at thirdrailrep.org. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes March 7. $15-$29.