Friday, April 9, 2004

What price loyalty? Mixing business and friendship

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In an intricately detailed junk shop on Portland Stage Company’s main stage, a battle of loyalties rages. David Mamet’s American Buffalo juxtaposes loyalty to friends with business relationships, showing with what force divergent points of view can collide.

Don (Dwight Bacquie) is a fatherly type for whom giving is important. He would give, for instance, a risky robbery assignment to a friend, Bobby (Gregory Russell Cook), even though Bobby is pleasantly clueless and seems likely to botch the job.

Teach (Don Harvey) also likes giving, but from the other side of the transaction. He demands that his friends give him whatever he wants — whether it’s a slice of toast or the task of breaking and entering.

"Business" for both is a secondary matter, one less personal and less infused with the demands of interpersonal relationships.

The two mix, though, when Don asks Bobby to help with a task Teach considers "business" — stealing back a buffalo nickel bought from the shop. Don figures it’s worth well more than the $90 that was cheerily paid for it, and assumes he needs it more than the purchaser does.

Teach argues he should do the deed because he’ll get it done and Bobby likely won’t. He browbeats Don into changing his mind, swapping business for friendship, and cutting Bobby from the deal.

Teach’s raging-animal is well handled by Harvey, who last appeared at PSC as a similarly disaffected man in Sam Shepard’s True West. Teach’s wildness becomes evident when he fears he is being cheated (by a friend) on the (business) deal. He berates Don and abuses Bobby, even while ignoring signs that there may no longer be a need to steal the nickel.

Then Donny’s wrath surfaces, emphasizing friendship, defending Bobby from Teach’s assault. Bobby and Teach then swap roles to a degree, with Bobby suddenly worldly wise, and Teach cowed into boyish submission.

As is usually the case with Portland Stage, the set is beautiful and the costumes are well done. (Though how PSC managed to convince Bacquie to shave his head into male-pattern baldness is beyond me . . .)

The direction includes elements of slapstick humor and other comic devices to keep the show moving, and to prevent it from being overly heavy. It is Mamet, after all, and Mamet’s language, which some have compared to Shakespeare in its complexity and cadence, is primarily a means of conveying feeling, and of preventing the action from being mime. The words wash over the listener, who need only absorb feelings to follow the meaning. The words themselves bring extra layers, and clues to recurring themes, including oblique references to nickels from time to time.

The blocking carries much of the passion of the story, and all three actors use the physical space very well, alternately occupying the center and fading to the edges. Their individual movements — how they use the space — add depth to their characters and understanding for the audience.

The real conflict, though, is in every house seat, as viewers weigh what they might do in the place of each character, each a very real, very human face.

American Buffalo
Written by David Mamet. Directed by Tony Giordano. With Dwight Bacquie, Gregory Russell Cook, and Don Harvey. At Portland Stage Company, through April 18. Call (207) 774-0465.


Add Verb Productions Arts & Education is seeking a high school student to join the board of directors. AVP’s mission is to bring about awareness, dialogue, and social change using theater. While AVP currently tours two programs around the country addressing eating disorders and dating abuse/sexual assault, additional new programming is in the works. This is an exciting opportunity for a student to be a part of a growing organization that has a statewide and national presence. For more information, contact AVP board secretary Tavia Gilbert at or

• Newburyport, Massachusetts, playwright David Mauriello has reworked A Passage of Time, produced at the Players Ring in 1995. Generic Theater will give the new version a staged reading at the Rice Public Library in Kittery at 7 p.m., April 13. The story follows two men whose relationship is tested when the family of one of the men comes to live with them.

• British playwright Marcus Lloyd will be at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor April 24 and 25 for the opening weekend of his play Dead Certain. It is the New England premiere of the play, a two-person thriller that opened at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, England, in 1999. Lloyd has been working with director Mark Torres via email during rehearsals. Penobscot Theatre will hold a special reception in Lloyd’s honor and have audience discussions with him as well. For more information, call the box office at (207) 942-3333 or visit