CW: rape, homophobia, misogyny, addiction

Now is, to put it kindly, an interesting time to put on a production of American Buffalo. Vocal Trump supporter, outspoken critic of “PC culture”, and, most recently, an accused Weinstein apologist, David Mamet is certainly a “controversial” figure – if you’re interested in giving him any leeway at all (full disclosure: I’m not). Particularly, his repeated interest in dealing with rape accusations in his plays, from both the viewpoint of the accuser and the accused (read: rapist) – historically in Oleanna (1994), and more recently in Bitter Wheat (2019) – is one which feels more than a little uncomfortable, peddling the blithely (and quite revoltingly) patronizing notion that all we need to do to work through systemic abuse in the entertainment industry is to get a little bit of perspective. Controversy for controversy’s sake, regardless of who gets shat on, is the name of the game here (and, distressingly, it does all come off as a bit of a game to Mamet).

But what do Stage Wrong make of all this? Their marketing campaign, certainly, has been more interested in posting faux-arty black-and-white photos of random junk-shop objects, or sneaking in wry lil’ snaps of Ross from Friends when they met him at the Bully last Saturday, than in engaging with the complicated cultural moment they’ve chosen to be a part of. “Forget about the context”, they seem to be saying, “it’s just a good play!”. Maybe it’s a stretch to argue complicity in Mamet’s many wrongs, but the willed desire to overlook them definitely raises concerns. One of the actors’ profile picture captions reads, “There’s no reason not to come to American Buffalo next week!” – in the light of the above, I can think of several. 

I find it quite hard to leave all this at the stage door, especially considering the (very, very needed) content warning at the ticket desk advertising “homophobic slurs, guns, and graphic violence” – the exact kinds of discourse I’ve been trying to show Mamet delights in. The play centres around the relationship between three men, Don, Bobby and Teach, who run a junk shop. They accidently sell an “American buffalo” nickel for $90, subsequently realize it’s maybe worth a lot more than that, and so scheme to steal it back. Hate-speech is spoken. Betrayal ensues. 

If anything really stands out, it’s the set and lighting design (Tara Kelly and Harvey Dovell). The towers of decaying junk-shop merch and moody red over-lighting create a brilliantly claustrophobic setting for the actors’ (Arthur Campbell, Henry Calcutt and Nici Marks) astonishingly controlled performances to shine through, and the scrupulous attention to blocking as the characters prowl around the stage works very effectively – especially with Don (Campbell), whose increasingly erratic movements from his desk, set upstage right, to the central table become a fitting analogue to the falling apart of the trio’s schemes. Bobby’s (Marks) nervous energy, and his deeply sad attempts to impress his “friends”, is well-handled and sensitively portrayed.

Despite all its homophobic and misogynistic slurs, the play is most striking for the delicacy of the relationship dynamics between its three characters. The heightening, manic anxiety as the verbal currency of their toxically masculinist value system becomes increasingly slippery, alongside the value of their merchandise, is effectively realized – that is until the final moments, where Teach’s (Calcutt) breakdown comes across more as a childish tantrum than the potentially pathetic revelation of the illusory “American Dream” they’ve all been chasing. This is possibly the result of the decision to downplay Teach’s drug addiction – he’s made very difficult to sympathize with.

The play’s central question thus appears to be the extent to which the characters are the victims or the perpetrators of the toxic value system they take part in, and while Stage Wrong’s production initially deals deftly with it, by the end it begins to falter as its subtleties are rushed (the play feels compressed to fit the Pilch’s two-hour slot). And the result seems less a repudiation of that value system, and more nostalgic glorification: masculinity has been corrupted by capitalism – if only we could purify it! 

To me, this production feels ill-timed and insensitive at best, with a disturbing directorial flippancy about the fact that the language being chucked about the stage is actual hate-speech, that has actual “real-world” consequences (see first paragraph). The performances are near excellent, but why they’ve chosen to perform them is another question. There are things to like here, but they get lost in the distressing mire of the play’s many unsavoury associations.