& I liked the movies Wag the Dog and The Verdict, both written by David Mamet. So when SSW suggested that we support the Santa Fe arts scene and attend a performance of Mamet’s 1975 play American Buffalo, I thought that – coupled with a rib-filling dinner at the Zia Cafe — would be a swell way to spend an evening.
We can’t all be literary critics, and I’m happy to cede that responsibility and occupation to others, even though I don’t agree with them most of the time. I’m just among those who expect to take away something, anything, from a book, or a song, or a poem, or a piece of art or a movie or a play. After all, the creators of such stuff have invested their time — great amounts of time in many cases — in preparing their creation and presenting it. Their customers invest their time, and often their money, to contemplate these creations. Shouldn’t something come of all this sacrifice of time and toil?
It so happens that I did get something out of the Ironweed Productions presentation of Mamet’s three-character, two-act, not-so-mellow drama directed by Scott Harrison, staged last Saturday at the Santa Fe Railyard. I got a few chuckles, particularly at those moments when Mamet’s machine-gun dialogue concludes a high-pitched screaming argument with an abrupt dead silence, followed by a soft-spoken, “Am I making you angry, Don?”
I also came away with a measure of respect for the players, Rod Harrison, Todd Anderson and J.D. Bray-Morris, all of whom appeared to have navigated through a frenetic thicket of fast-paced, loudly spoken, profanity-packed dialogue that required, above all, timing. A credible job, thought I. A credible job with a crummy play. Back in 1975, the constant spewing of raw profanity might have been shocking enough to keep audiences awake. Back then, the metaphor having to do with the non-ethic of big business and greed and dishonor among thieves might have been au courant. But the profanity now is simply tiring, and the metaphor, thin at the outset, is now also tired.
What I didn’t take away was any sense that there had been a message, a theme, a moral — a STORY, for Pete’s sake — to emerge from the two hours of mostly high-pitched rat-a-tat and redundant dialogue, delivered during endless, tiring back-and-forth stage pacings. What I got, along with a couple of brief moments of nap time, was two hours of three hapless crooks plotting a fourth-story heist of a buffalo nickel worth 90 bucks that n e v e r happened. There was also a gun. It never went off.
The restrained audience applause at the play’s conclusion gave me a hint others had been similarly underwhelmed, but it wasn’t until SSW told me over drinks at La Fonda that she had thought about suggesting we leave at intermission, but didn’t. “When it was over,” she said, “I’m sorry we didn’t leave.” At least, I realized, I was not alone.
So why stage this thing at all, I wondered. As I browse the Internet in search of answers, I find that the play was many things to many people. If you’ll look at this site, you’ll find a number of views, most of them disagreeing with one another about the play’s message and its method:
“A form of prayer of the dispossessed,” wrote one reviewer. A funny but “vicious attack on the ethos of Big Business and the price that it exacts upon the human soul,” explained another. “Tedious and static…” to some critics. “Authentically fragmented dialogue,” remarked another. Or, this from one: “…hard meaning and veiled threats from the frenzied banter of a trio of articulate burglars.” And this from another: “If the play finally achieves eloquence it is through the inarticulate.”
Well, which is it fellas? Articulate, or inarticulate?
And there was this opinion,with which I fully agreed: “No ideas or statements are ever completed, conversation is chiefly carried on in a series of muddled or explosive ejaculations. One often doubts whether the characters themselves know what they want to say. Hardly anything is fulfilled.”
At this site, which reports that most early critics were “enthusiastic,” there are also references to those who weren’t: “a poor excuse for a play”, said one; “too superficial to waste time upon,” said another.
And then there is the explanation direct from Mamet’s mouth, issued, perhaps, as a result of the large number of confused critics bobbing about in the play’s wake: It’s a play, said Mamet, “about an essential part of American consciousness, which is the ability to suspend an ethical sense and adopt in its stead a popular accepted mythology and use that to assuage your conscience like everyone else is doing.” OK, David, if you say so. But I’m always suspicious when people have to explain their jokes, or plays.
Anyway, what we’ve got here is a critical vision of a tedious, static, prayerful, profane attack of articulate (or inarticulate) fragmented dialogue from possibly clueless characters, adding up to an unfulfilled, incomplete, superficial message about American consciousness, ethics and mythology, all wrapped up in in muddled language having to do with a third-rate burglary that didn’t happen.
This would not go over well on the book jacket.
Confused, I decided to Phone a Friend, none other than the Fount of All Things Cultured, the sage of Jaconita, Hungry Gerald Freeman (whose blog, Hungry Gerald, should be included in your regular reading diet).
“One of Mamet’s best,” said Gerald after my mention of the play.
I said I didn’t get it.
“How was the acting?” he asked.
“Adequate,” said I.
“It’s a great play,” he said, “but it depends heavily on superb acting and superb directing. Without that, it can fail.”
I do not go to plays in Santa Fe expecting to encounter “superb” performances. The City Different, for all of its charm, is a long, long way off Broadway, and even there, “superb” performances are few and far between. I go expecting maybe a few laughs, or a scary moment, or a thought-provoking dialogue. I go expecting a story. I expect it to be well, if not superbly, told. I expect to be able to take something home with me.
Last Saturday, the only thing I took home was a hunk of uneaten meatloaf in a doggie box from the Zia Cafe. At least I had the makings for a good – not superb — meatloaf sandwich.
& Thinking about “superb” performances. The last time I saw a superb acting performance was back in the 90s, when O.J. Simpson struggled so mightily to pull on a glove that supposedly didn’t fit.
& With the real American buffaloes, I’m outta here.