Production of 'American Buffalo' suffers from last-minute cast change
By MICHAEL SMITH World Entertainment Writer 03/31/01
With the regular Hollywood diet that we're fed of "criminal masterminds," it's easy to think of characters like Thomas Crown, Vito Corleone and Cary Grant's cat burglar in "To Catch a Thief" with a great deal of romantic whimsy.
TV most often nails the true picture, however, as shows like "Homicide" and "NYPD Blue" portray skels, perps and cons to be what they really are, as I found in several years of covering police beats for newspapers: All criminals are lazy and none of them are terribly bright, much less romantic.
This image is not only nailed but hammered to a bloody pulp in the Theater Pops production of "American Buffalo," the David Mamet play, which opened Thursday night at the Nightingale Theater to a sparse crowd.
The play ostensibly is about three petty crooks planning a heist. But to enjoy this trio's antics is to suffer fools gladly, something I've always had trouble doing. And, trust me, the three appear impressively moronic, thanks to Mamet's strong dialogue. The subject of said strong dialogue is the crooks' assertion that their thieving ways are merely their business ethic, their way of working within the free enterprise system.
But the beauty of a masterful Mamet work like "Glengarry Glen Ross" is showing that those real estate sharks aren't that different from these low-lifes in their efforts; here we're left to take these losers at face value, and their ludicrous rationale is only occasionally amusing.
The light audience was probably a good thing this night, with the hope that attendance might grow for the second weekend of this troubled production's run. It is a work that, under the direction of and starring Ken Spence, must be labeled as the best this group can achieve under the circumstances.
Spence is well-known in local theater circles for helming outstanding productions for more than two decades, and his remarkable work has continued this season with American Theater Company's brilliant presentations of "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Driving Miss Daisy" as well as Theater Tulsa's "Our Town."
But "American Buffalo" is sure to remind Spence why he has said that he no longer plans to direct and act in the same production again. A superb performer, Spence is focused here but cannot help seeming rushed and a bit out of sync with his co-stars due to the forced nature of holding a script throughout the production.
Spence was forced into the role when the previously cast actor quit last weekend. It would be easier if this were an ensemble piece he was picking up late; but this has only three characters, and Spence's character has the most work here, and this is Mamet, with rapid-fire dialogue such as: Teach: "You want to tell me about the thing?" Donnie: "The thing?" Teach: "Yeah." Donnie: "It's nothing. Teach: "It's nothing?" Donnie: "Yeah."
The close proximity of the action at the Nightingale Theater only worsens this situation. Of our players here, Randall Whalen is superb in his role as Donnie, owner of the junk store where all of the action takes place, and who spends most of his time leaning behind a counter. Duwayne Mills is exceptional as Bobby, the troubled young drug addict who spends most of his brief scenes slumped in a chair.
Either of these workloads would have been easier on Spence, but no, he's forced into the role of the one character with the most dialogue and who spends much of the piece pacing frantically and flailing his arms. The situation reaches its worst late in the play, as Spence's character violently attacks another man, kicking at him and reading, kicking and reading.
I'd guess that Spence may not be holding a script by the second weekend, making this a much more special performance. Unfortunately, it won't change the fact that you're listening to three palookas argue for two hours, something you could just as easily do on a trip to the Tulsa Jail's booking area.
Theater Pops' production of "American Buffalo" continues with performances scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. April 5-7 at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St. Tickets are $8 and may be reserved by calling 587-5221.
Michael Smith, World entertainment writer, can be reached at 581-8474 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.