Arts » Theater

Mamet's Monsters

Twenty-six-year-old character study retains its bite.


It's a guy thing: Joel Hammer, Joe Kerata, and Daniel - McElhaney in David Mamet's American - Buffalo.
  • It's a guy thing: Joel Hammer, Joe Kerata, and Daniel McElhaney in David Mamet's American Buffalo.
Every summer, busloads of theater aficionados head up to Canada's Shaw and Stratford festivals. These are the tea-drinkers of theaterdom, those who regard the stage as an elegant getaway, where maids with counterfeit accents arrange flowers and flirtations. Those who make these pilgrimages are the same rarefied souls who look upon David Mamet and his ilk as their natural predators.

Before he started writing screenplays to such films as The Untouchables and various vehicles for his actress wife Rebecca Pigeon, Mamet made his name by creating a rank jungle full of testosterone-charged beasts roaring a highly stylized iambic-pentameter street profanity. The females of his species are all, in Mamet lingo, 100 percent "ball-busting bitches." He sketches relationships that invariably end in betrayal. With his ardent depictions of man-eating Homo sapiens, it is an interesting evolution from metaphoric to literal that he would end up as co-screenwriter of the cannibal epic Hannibal.

Yet, from Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll, all monster-makers start out with honorable intentions. The same can be said for Mamet's American Buffalo, which avoids the elliptical mean-spiritedness that would plague his later works. The play, which premiered in 1975, is in the same influential tradition as Zoo Story and The Glass Menagerie. It shows the first coalescing of the style that would influence a generation of cynical-tough, terse playwrights. As in The Maltese Falcon, here is a coterie of hustlers pinning their dreams on a big score. Yet, as in the Dashiell Hammett classic, the treasure they seek turns out to be a useless trinket -- in this case, a buffalo nickel, as worthless as the fabled lead falcon.

Twenty-six years after it stunned Chicago and then the rest of the world, it still holds up as Mamet's purest, most untainted meditation on the underbelly of capitalism. Due to its lack of women characters, it is free of misogyny. It also lacks the repetition that would bloat his later works.

The play was done in by a lackluster film adaptation, but Charenton Theater offers an antidote. This authentic production is an ideal introduction to this seminal drama. The theater, whose mandate is to present postwar plays that shake the status quo, has wisely hired director Kenn McLaughlin. He has the wisdom and delicacy to defuse the playwright's he-man bombast. McLaughlin manages to emphasize a male camaraderie alternately as slap-happily adolescent as Abbot and Costello and, at other times, as dangerously antagonistic as 007 and Goldfinger.

The three cast members have the nervous energy of a Miles Davis riff. Joel Hammer as Teach is pathetically lovable, yet dangerous; everything about him suggests a secondhand sleaziness, as represented by the shoddy, imitation-leather jacket he proudly wears. He buzzes through the play with a quaalude-induced paranoia. Joe Kerata as Don, the store owner, exudes a threadbare regality as a warm-hearted junk shop king. Daniel McElhaney, as the junkie Bobby, plays his role with such a touching fragility, he appears to be held together with chicken wire. They all manage to leap dexterously through Mamet's treacherous verbal hoops.

Most important, they display a goofy sweetness underneath a veneer of petty vice. In spite of the periodic violent flare-ups, Hammer with his passionate, shifty-eyed hawkishness and Kerata with his overstuffed easy-chair coziness, bring to mind a more psychopathic variation of Neil Simon's card-playing kibitzers in the Odd Couple. In their darker moments, they resurrect Eugene O'Neill's Iceman Cometh barflies, cantankerously clinging to their pipe dreams.

Besides the cast, the production's biggest asset is the authenticity of Ashley Francis's costumes and Barbara J. Quill's astounding array of props. The upstairs of the Here Here Gallery has been turned into a claustrophobic, rectangular junk shop. The piles of '70s detritus, from broken Santas to old girlie magazines, flow out of the shop and down the theater stairs. The most frightening artifact is Jim Nabors's ghoulish visage staring out from a 30-year-old record album. Just the thought of Nabors's rendition of "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" makes Mamet's most vituperative rages seem like a day spent among the roses.

To quote the holy Stephen Sondheim: "The air is humming and something great is coming." Last week, local jazz doyen Mike Petrone, in a fit of industrious ingenuity, staged a concert preview of his new musical, Full Moon, at Dobama Theatre. Petrone, who miraculously crafted the whole shebang, has delivered a phantasmagorical tale set in a graveyard that includes singing statues, a kidnapping, reincarnation, and the after-death love life of Albert Einstein. Put together with a handful of rehearsals, it shows how, even under pressure, our local performers can easily compare to any Broadway talent.

The two performances left an astonished audience in awe at having witnessed a one-man endeavor that extracted some of the best qualities of Johnny Mercer's lyrics, Harold Arlen's music, and Mark Twain's caustic whimsy. If we're not to be known as a town only capable of regurgitating other cities' creations, the powers that be at Playhouse Square and Cleveland's two equity giants need to get off their thrones and look into fertilizing a home-grown beauty.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.