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Letter from Artistic Director on American Buffalo

by Martha Lavey

American Buffalo, David Mamet's 1975 play, set in Chicago, is the second production in our season of belief. Amy Morton, our director, has long been interested in directing the play. Her history with Mamet's work includes her performance in our production of The Cryptogram and her direction of Steppenwolf's production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Like Mamet, Amy is deeply informed by the culture and voice of Chicago—the characters of his plays, their conversational rhythms and the vocabulary of their expression are well known to her, life-long Chicagoan that she is. Re-reading American Buffalo through the prism of our season's theme, I was alert to how fundamentally the play turns on the question of belief. The play is a kind of Rashoman tale: each of the characters has a different narrative for the events of the play and as we receive the angle of vision of each, our perception of events shifts and turns. The central event of the play, the pursuit of the American buffalo nickel, is resonant with meaning. Money is the great quest in the play and the particular currency of that quest is an image of America's past, picturing, as it does, the Native American and a native animal made nearly extinct by the invasion of new Americans. Inscribed at the heart of the play is the story of America's history as a narrative of conquest, of invasion, of the coin of the realm. Donny, Teach and Bobby are American men of three generations. Donny, owner of the junkshop in which the play is set, is the keeper of the past—the store is the repository for objects shed and forgotten. The youngest, Bobby, is gullible, dependent, sweet- natured, trusting. The middle generation, the man of the world, is Teach. He comes in from the outside, he activates the play with his ambition and plans, he disrupts the pact between Donny and Bobby, he takes over. Teach (his name is significant) comes into the play to instruct Donny into the way things are. It is a costly education. Teach works his persuasion through insinuation. He disabuses Donny of his innocence, insisting repeatedly on the difference between loyalty and business: "All I mean, a guy can be too loyal, Don. Don't be dense on this. What are we saying here? Business." Ironically, it is Donny who, earlier in the play, attempts to educate Bobby on survival: "...there's business and there's friendship, Bobby...there are many things, and when you walk around you hear a lot of things, and what you got to do is keep clear who your friends are, else the rest is garbage [...]. Things are not always what they seem to be." This tension between loyalty and friendship and business is a central theme of the play. And what is the business in the play? Sales in a junkshop, betting in a card game, re-selling the coins from the heist: the circulation of small sums among people who have very little and are scrambling for more. These guys will never be part of a larger economy—they are two-bit gamblers and hoods—they are men left out of the commerce of a larger world. All they have is friendship. What we witness in the play is the cost of valuing the commerce of which they will never be a part over the one thing they have, hidden in plain sight: their loyalty and friendship. Like the American buffalo nickel, the value of their history and friendship is overlooked until it's gone. Mamet is telling the story of these men—these men who represent three generations and so constitute a family structure—in the service of a larger story about America. Placing the American buffalo at the center of the play as the object overlooked and then desired, Mamet is able to draw in the spectre of our past and its extinction, and the great overtaking power of money. The irony is that Mamet sets this within a social milieu of men who are outside of the real game, men who will never get beyond their financial circumstance and will, in fact, always suffer at the hands of society's real players. The question of value and values is acute in the play. This is where the play turns on the question of belief. When the nickel sat in Donny's shop, unnoticed, he was untroubled by it—he believed it was worth no more than its face value. Once he is alerted to the buyer's interest in the coin, he constructs an entire scenario about the buyer's intention, about the value of the coin, about how to retrieve it along with what he imagines is an entire coin collection. He believes himself entitled to the coin and he believes himself made prosperous by retrieving it. The old coin will be his passport to future wealth. I believe that Mamet is asking us to look at that transaction—the conversion of this old coin, an image of America's past, to a new wealth made possible only by the heist—as an expression of values. What will we trade in for the acquisition of wealth? What becomes extinct in the quest for prosperity? The larger irony of the play is that these guys themselves are on the verge of extinction. In Mamet's characteristically irreverent way, he introduces the social forces rife in mid-1970s America that will dethrone the white man from the top of the social heap. Repeated reference is made to Grace and Ruthie, a lesbian couple who are better gamblers and more successful businesswomen than Teach. Ethnic slurs are invoked in the descriptions of people who have invaded what Teach considers his turf. The forces of feminism and multiculturalism are given presence in the play through these references and always as a threat to what Teach feels is his world. Today we find ourselves in an especially resonant cultural moment that can help us shed more light on Mamet's American Buffalo. The financial crisis has thrown into high relief the question of values and value. We are collectively questioning what we have paid for the American obsession with wealth and we are witnessing the stratification of wealth—the winners and losers—when the game falls apart. American Buffalo has much to offer in the way of a cautionary tale. That it offers its wisdom in a story beautifully told and deeply felt is a testimony to Mamet's gift.