American Buffalo's short-con (and the reviewers who fell for it)

"American Buffalo's "short-con' (3rd review)

6 minute read
Pryor, DaPonte, Canuso: Little things mean a lot. (Photo: Cory Frisco.)
Pryor, DaPonte, Canuso: Little things mean a lot. (Photo: Cory Frisco.)
Written jointly with Gresham Riley.

The shell game involving three shells and a "pea" is a well-known confidence trick, often performed on urban streets frequented by tourists. In street slang it's known as a "short-con," because it's quick and easy to pull off.

The game requires only a flat surface, three shells (thimbles, match boxes, and bottle caps will do just as well), and a small, soft, round ball called a "pea." The "shell man" begins the game by placing the "pea" under one of the shells and shuffling the three swiftly and with considerable dexterity. Everything depends on sleight of hand and misdirection. The allure for player-betters is the promise of double or nothing. Of course, no one ever wins because, remember, this is not a game; it's a short-con.

David Mamet's American Buffalo isn't literally a short-con, but it bears enough resemblances that audiences, reviewers and critics often lose sight of the "pea." In this play, the dramatic equivalent of the shell game's sleight of hand and misdirection is the overflow of testosterone, manifested in multiple forms of male bravado, exaggerated confidence in knowing the basic rules of life, empty professions of savvy in navigating the stormy waters of American capitalism, and of course Mamet's signature profusion of "fuck this; fuck that; fuck you."

Mamet's primary concern

When you're watching American Buffalo, if you lose sight of the "pea," you're likely to come away thinking that Mamet is principally concerned with the corroding, corrupting and dehumanizing character of a "money society"; the "delusions of urban males"; and "the absence of anything resembling a moral lesson."

Evidence that the short-con was successful in Theatre Exile's very fine production can be found in Catherine Pressimone Beckowski's program notes (drawing parallels between the play's depiction of "free enterprise" with "the Bernie Madoff scandal and our current economic crisis") and in Dan Rottenberg's review in BSR.

The viewer has missed the point if these are thought to be the dominant themes. There is a "pea" to be found in American Buffalo, if you look and listen closely, and that "pea" is friendship and community.

An early clue

Mamet reveals the "pea" very early (as any good "shell man" does) when Don informs Bob, "There's business and there's friendship." A bit later, Teach says, "Friendship is friendship, and a wonderful thing, and I am all for it. I have never said different, and you know me on this point." Although "friendship" is introduced as a theme simultaneously with "business," it is quickly eclipsed by the sleight of hand and misdirection created by the superabundance of testosterone.

As much as (if not more than) anything, American Buffalo is a play about six characters who define a community, not in the sense of serving as metaphors or representations of types but as living on stage as real people. Three of them we see; the other three— Fletcher, Ruthie and Grace— are very much alive if not actually seen by the audience, and each is the focus of some major part of the conflict.

The unseen women

It's important that two of these people are women and that the incident involving them is what sets Teach off. For all his ranting and name-calling and paranoid fury, Teach does care what they think and is not only enraged but hurt by what he considers a slight. It is this slight, coupled with the further one he experiences when he feels left out of the "thing" that Don and Bobby are planning, that propels what plot there is. But this is not a play about plot; this is a play about people, in particular these people, and their social dependence, however fractious, on each other.

Thanks to Matt Pfeiffer, the director, and the actors Joe Canuso, Robert DaPonte and Pete Pryor, this production doesn't lose sight of the real heart of the play: the need for community, the desire for respect and acceptance, the fear of losing it and the need to be forgiven when having gone too far.

Teach insults the two women he cares about; he lies about Fletcher's cheating and having let the team down; he assaults Bobby; and he destroys Don's shop. While Pete Pryor has received much-deserved praise for these pyrotechnics, the following exchange tells us more about Teach than anything else:

Don: It's all fucked up. (Pause.) You fucked my shop up.
Teach: Are you mad at me?
Don: What?
Teach: Are you mad at me?
Don: Come on.
Teach: Are you?
Don: Go and get your car. Bob?
Teach (pause): Tell me, are you mad at me?
Don: No.
Teach: You aren't?
Don: No.
Teach: Good.

Pryor's straightforward, heartbreaking delivery of Teach's lines here reveals the more nuanced meaning of the play: the need to be forgiven, not to be shut out, however egregious our transgressions.

This nuanced meaning is further underscored when, immediately after this exchange, Don and Teach take Bobby to the hospital, and the next day they are going, with Ruthie and Grace, to see Fletcher, who is already in the hospital, even if it is not the one Bobby thought it was— yet another mix-up creating another source of conflict.

Not one star but three

These conflicts are interesting, even frightening in their power, but they're also often flat-out funny. And this cast is up to the task of delivering difficult dialogue with precision and flair without losing sight of what's really going on. It's easy to single out Pryor, because his is the flashier role. But no fewer kudos should go to Canuso and DaPonte who are both well up to the task.

In the end, all three realize that after all the "things" (that mostly don't work out), the fights (that will continue to happen) and the fear (of failure, loss of respect, loss of friendship), they have each other. It may not seem like much to those in the audience who see only losers, but who are we to say? In a world gone crazy with fear and greed and anxiety and hopelessness, maybe the little communities we can manage to keep together are worth a lot more than a Buffalo nickel. ïµ

Pamela Riley is a retired theater director and professor of literature and drama. Most recently she taught at Colorado College and the University of Pennsylvania. Gresham Riley is an occasional contributor to BSR. They live in Old City, Philadelphia.

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read Dan Rottenberg's response to this review, click here.

To read follow-up responses, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation