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American Buffalo needs to smooth rough edges

American Buffalo
Written by David Mamet.
Directed by the cast,
Jennifer Duncan '92, and Paulo Pereira '93.
Starring Archie Roberts '92, Ryun Yu '93,
and Franz M. Elizondo Schmelkes '94.
Reviewed at rehearsal.
Kresge Little Theatre,
Feb. 20 and 21, 8 pm.

By Deborah A. Levinson
Contributing Editor

American Buffalo is not a play for the faint of heart. Its characters are brutish and profane; its action is harsh and startling. The student production of David Mamet's play brings out these elements, but takes a little too long to get there.

To the actors' credit, I reviewed a rehearsal, and both the actors and the assistant directors admitted they had problems to work out before the two public performances. If they can just iron out the first act, American Buffalo will be worth seeing.

American Buffalo deals with the lives of three men: Don, a junk-store owner; Bob, a dimwitted ex-junkie; and Teach, a violent Cro-Magnon case whose idea of a platitude is "The only way to teach these people is to kill them." Don has just sold a rare buffalo-head nickel to a collector and, having discovered the profitability of coin collecting, plots with Bob to steal the buyer's coins. Enter Teach, who takes charge of the situation and browbeats Don into cutting off Bob. As plot goes, it isn't much, but then again, Mamet's strength has always been his dialogue.

Teach's dialogue is the most colorful -- essentially, it is a series of profanities strung together with an occasional adjective or verb. The kindest thing he ever calls a woman is "broad" or "vicious dyke." As Teach, Ryan Yu '93 is superb, ferocious one minute and gracious the next. He enters the play screaming and yelling, maintaining that pace throughout the play, notably in the gripping final scene where he destroys the junk-shop and nearly beats Bob to death. Having seen Yu in other plays where he gave merely good performances, it was gratifying to see him turn in a great one.

Archie Roberts '92 also delivers a fine performance as the amiably stupid Bob. Decked out in faded jeans and denim jacket and wearing an old baseball cap backwards, Roberts looks the part of the poor ex-junkie trying to stay straight. He reveres Don as a son does his father, and the final scene and fadeout, where he lies bleeding in Don's arms, is genuinely touching.

I found it harder to warm up to Franz M. Elizondo Schmelkes '94 as Don. His voice remained flat and even for the entire first act when it should have carried more emotion. Not until the second act did he begin to bring some life to Don, finally offering more than a simple reading to the quiet moments of the play.

The calm moments, however, show the critical problem with this production of American Buffalo: In a play where dialogue is everything, the pacing is lugubrious, especially in the first act. Since the bulk of the action takes place in the second act, the actors must hook the audience right away. Unless the directors' and actors' promised changes occur, that isn't going to happen. Still, for a play as fascinating as American Buffalo, I'd be willing to take a chance on this company of actors again.