News & Articles

Unfreezing the Play

by Polly Carl, Director of Artistic Development

Theater is a series of ongoing interpretations. The playwright, director, dramaturg, designers and actors come together in a collaborative process seeking a multitude of possibilities for the presentation of a play. At some point, in order to bring in the audience, the play freezes—the script is finalized, the set is built, the sound and lights are programmed and the actors find their rhythm. But the possible meanings of the play go on in post-show discussions, drinks after the play and late night pillow talk. My hope is to provide some heat to your conversations when you leave the theater—to thaw what we’ve temporarily frozen and invite you to collaborate in making meaning and theater with us. One of my secret shames is the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. I get obsessed not so much with the objects themselves but rather with the relationship between people and what they value. When my family and I watch the show we have a tradition of yelling "Sell it!" whenever someone brings in an object that ends up being worth much more than they or we expect. When Teach says, "If I kept the stuff that I threw out… I would be a wealthy man today," I am reminded that American culture is predicated on the belief that as individuals we’re always on the verge of finding fortune. We might win the lottery. A priceless antique might be waiting for discovery amidst the cobwebs in our basements. My start-up company will take off. By living in the land of our opportunity, our lives will be fully actualized—any minute now. The driving engine of American Buffalo is the worth of a Buffalo head nickel. In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, author Jean Baudrillard argues that in an art auction the relationship between the object purchased and the money exchanged for that object is skewed. The exchange supersedes the object's use value. In fact, the object may have no use at all. Baudrillard says the moment of expenditure "presupposes something of a competition, a wager, an aristocratic measure of is this, and not the satisfaction of needs that occasionally turns consumption into a passion, a fascinating game, something other than functional economic behavior." Baudrillard makes a convincing case that the buyer at an auction establishes privilege, a kind of status—something beyond mere buying power. Although European aristocracy and Wall Street excess live in two very different historical contexts, I am fascinated by the idea of exchange as rooted in competition and passion. In American Buffalo, Don is obsessed with this nickel, with the possibility that he missed out on his opportunity for something more. Underlying the equally compelling themes of friendship and loyalty in the play, individual and communal worth is the play's thematic soul. The play's relevance to the contemporary crisis surrounding the question "what's it worth?" can't be overstated. Consider our national housing crisis. The value of homes had skyrocketed so high that buying a home two years ago wasn’t unlike going to auction given the stiff competition and the inflated purchase prices. Home ownership conferred a new kind of ubiquitous legitimacy. Now many of those new homeowners are stuck trying to sell for much less than they purchased having been tricked into believing that entering the privileged class could be a "steal" at zero percent down. At the end of American Buffalo, the plan for the heist falls to pieces, in part due to Bobby's lie at the beginning of the play. In the play we never learn the actual value of the nickel. We know that a man paid ninety dollars for it and that Don is certain it’s worth several times that. But the actual value doesn't matter. The nickel stands in for the value limit that Don, Teach and Bobby can confer upon themselves in a milieu where the white working-class man is threatened by the rise of white collar "aristocrat"—the man, who as Baudrillard says, (I'm suggesting now an equivalence between "art lover" and "coin collector") "does not create profit" through his purchase but "legitimacy." We never learn the value of the coin, but for Don, Teach and Bobby could it ever be worth more than what they can pay for it?