St. Louis Actors Studio Scores with a Brilliant American Buffalo

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Teach (William Roth) pressures Bobby (Leo Ramsey) while Donny (Peter Mayer) watches.
Teach (William Roth) pressures Bobby (Leo Ramsey) while Donny (Peter Mayer) watches. JOHN LAMB

American Buffalo

Written by David Mamet. Directed by John Contini. Presented by St. Louis Actors' Studio through December 18 at the Gaslight Theater (358 North Boyle Avenue; Tickets are $30 to $35.

A ferocious momentum is atwork in David Mamet's American Buffalo. We're dropped into the middle of a heist scheme that is already in progress, and we race with the conspirators to its denouement over the course of one long day. That speed is driven by the whip-crack pacing of Mamet's blistering dialogue, which is voluminous and spiked with profanities and street philosophies.

But Mamet's top speed is not enough for director John Contini, who stands on the accelerator for St. Louis Actors' Studio's current production of the show. Perhaps he does so to keep pace with his actors: Peter Mayer, Leo Ramsey and William Roth go hell-bent for leather through Mamet's back-room drama about a trio of men who feel entitled to a fortune. The fact that said fortune belongs to another man means nothing. There's a wall dividing them from unimaginable wealth, and they're content to scream towards it, hands outstretched, discarding any dead weight that slows them down.

This is one of the most fully realized and rewarding productions St. Louis Actors' Studio has mounted in its ten years. Mayer, Ramsey and Roth wear their characters like second skins, each as three-dimensional as the junk shop they plot in. Even the set is a triumph; scenic designer Cristie Johnston has created a depth that seems impossible on the Gaslight's cozy stage.

Donny (Peter Mayer) is the owner of the shop, and the brains behind this plot to get rich. He recently sold an American Buffalo nickel to a customer, and now believes that the customer got the better of him. That belief eats at Donny until he realizes such a canny collector of coins must have other valuable items in his collection. It would be a simple task to break into the collector's home and rob him blind, just like he robbed Donny blind.

Donny's sleeveless shirt, leather vest and tattoos mark him as a tough guy, but he's free with his money and unstintingly kind in his treatment of Bobby (Leo Ramsey), a kid who's addled his brains with drugs. Bobby works as Donny's gofer, and he hangs on Don's every word. Ramsey leads with his forehead, presenting it to Mayer every time Donny gives Bobby instructions, as if the words will take better purchase in his mind if they hit his head first. Bobby's nervous and easily distracted, but his loyalty toward Donny is absolute.

Teach (William Roth) is the unwanted third man in this heist. He's as loud as his shiny gold shirt and matching shoes, and he pontificates at length on subjects such as loyalty (a big one for him), friendship, how to discover the whereabouts of the imaginary combination of an imaginary safe and the propriety of offering a friend a cash hand-out ("I don't flaunt it like some bust-out asshole!").

Of course things go pear-shaped for our heroes. The magic of American Buffalo is that as circumstances grow more dire, the truth about everyone is revealed. These are small desperate men who struggle to rise to the challenge of larceny, and each man accepts his personal failings in his own way. There is humor, there is violence and there is loyalty. And just when the play grows darkest, there is an unlooked-for tenderness, and it is a treasure more precious than any hoard of coins.

You may see happier, more overtly heart-warming shows this holiday season. But you won't see a better, more honest depiction of humanity in these uncertain, dying days of the year.

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