Simmer in the City

NonProphet erupts with Mamet's American Buffalo.

Within the first minute of American Buffalo, a character has uttered the words that summarize both the play and playwright David Mamet's view of theater: "Action counts." Ironically, when it premiered on Broadway, Buffalo was denigrated by some critics as a play in which "nothing happens." But it's teeming with almost-microscopic action, living in the moment-to-moment activities of the characters, the primal marking of their territory, the nod of a head. It's a seething bed of banality that erupts in violence.

The plot is a classic three-person playwriting exercise, with pawnshop owner and small-time criminal Donny Dubrow at the apex of the triangle. Bobby, a dim teen Donny seems to have adopted, and Teach, Donny's street-wise but insecure friend, each vie for Donny's attention. Shifting loyalties and layers of lies force each character to unexpected action, which involves a murky plan to rob a coin collector.

The NonProphet Theater Company's production works well in the intimate Wolfson Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. Because the audience is so close to the actors, each gesture or nuance of facial expression speaks volumes. So does the set, a dingy Chicago pawnshop with mustard-colored walls and dirty glass windows, designed by the NonProphet's artistic director, Robert Mitchell. Director B. Weller navigates the characters deftly through the obstacle course of the shop and helps the actors find the script's poetic shifts in cadence and rhythm.

Mamet's trademark sparse dialogue, laced with obscenities, is at times almost meaningless. Generally, it's not the words but the nonverbal communication that matters — the side glances, the shrug of a shoulder, a sarcastic thumbs-up. Here each actor brings honesty to the ongoing business of the play. Rory Flynn as Donny is a physical anchor, seated behind his shop counter working on word puzzles, keeping an eye on Bobby and Teach while formulating his own schemes. His few movements are powerful, and it's clear why he's the leader of this troubled trio. Brendan Allen imbues Bobby with a wistful innocence as the lost boy tries to please father-figure Donny and avoid the wrath of the unpredictable Teach. Robert Mitchell brings a catlike physicality to Teach, pacing and springing suddenly, all the while looking for a scratch on the back or a scrap of food.

Like the plays of Pinter, Mamet's work begins with a sense of unease that grows to an underlying menace that finally erupts. Much of the play is focused on people we never see: the lesbian couple Grace and Ruthie (who may or may not be genuine allies); the crime victim-to-be; the elusive accomplice Fletcher, whose allegiance comes into question; the cops who routinely patrol the street. Usually it's to a play's detriment when the onstage characters dwell on offstage characters so much, but here it increases the tension; there's a sense that the little world of the pawnshop is surrounded by danger and betrayal, that this makeshift island of safety could sink at any moment. The outside threat is clearly seen when Teach spots the police on patrol. He and Donny stop in their tracks, almost sniffing the air for danger. When the cops move on, they resume their movement but remain alert for any other threat.

Mamet's gritty examination of life on the edge of poverty and crime holds a magnifying glass to the nightmare side of the American Dream. When Teach cries out, "We all live like cavemen!" it's a truth not just about his individual circle of existence but the general inability of man — and Mamet uses the gender deliberately — to move beyond primitive territorial concerns. Sadly, this indictment seems even more relevant today than when the play premiered in 1975.