William H. Macy is stingy with the cheese. No, "cheese" isn't a euphemism for cash. Cheddar, provolone, gouda --- you know, cheese. The now-famous, wealthy actor who has starred in such critically acclaimed films as It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and TV's The Boy Who Loved Trolls, was grudging with the cheese. You see, Macy and now-renowned playwright David Mamet came up together. They spent their days, pre-fame and fortune, working together, struggling to make it. And, according to Mamet, it was Macy's unapologetic rudeness, his stinginess with the aforementioned cheese, that inspired Mamet's critically acclaimed play American Buffalo.
Arriving at Macy's rat-infested hovel, Mamet discovered a hunk of cheese in the fridge. Literally starving for his art, Mamet helped himself to a slice. In an obviously sarcastic tone, Macy responded, "Hey, help yourself." Mamet was insulted, hurt that his friend would deny him the cheese, would make him feel guilty for desiring the cheese. And so, Mamet began to write.
Insanely elaborate, the set for Geva's production of American Buffalo is Don's Resale Shop, a pawn joint. Cluttered with junk, abandoned to dust on shelves, hanging from walls, and shoved into corners, the shop has become less of a retail outlet and more of a hangout. And, not too subtly, the disarray represents the state of the characters who inhabit it. A card table littered with wrappers, poker chips, and empty Budweiser cans sits next to a filthy couch, worn full of holes. These are the heart of the stage where Donny, Bobby, and Teach's lives mingle together.
Donny, the shop's proprietor, was in possession of what he believes to be a rare American Buffalo nickel. When a customer buys it for $90, Donny, untrained in numismatics, is afraid he's been taken. He plans a heist. Break into that customer's house, steal his private collection, and sell it back to him. Donny has recruited a neighborhood kid, Bobby, to help. But Teach, a low-level con, wants Bobby out. Although Donny and Teach pretend to have it all together, their plan for the robbery is stalled in the muck of insecurity, fear, and a struggle with morality.
Donny, a father figure, lectures Bobby, a simple youth, about the importance of developing the right kind of smarts, of maturing into a good man. Jim Frangione plays Donny as a decent man who struggles to balance his care for Bobby with his desire for money, the ticket to the American Dream. It becomes apparent that Bobby (in a very Steinbeckian way), played with stunning execution and detail by Lucas Papaelias, is Lennie to Donny's George. And, although he is tough on Bobby, Donny does for Bobby what he thinks is best.
His lecture is interrupted by the foul-mouthed ranting of Teach, who is pissed that his acquaintance Ruth, a woman for whom he has bought innumerable pastries without expectation, has given him the ironic "Help yourself!" in response to his taking a piece of toast from her plate. Walter "Teach" Cole, as played by Sean Patrick Reilly, is your classic mook, strutting around in his leather coat, puffing his chest out and scratching his greasy coif. And, it is within this first scene that Mamet sets up the love/hate relationship between these three men. Contentious, yet caring, the relationship combines with the situation to lead to a horrific climax that is meant to be both shocking and enlightening.
While the play is mostly realistic, Mamet's language is purposefully poetic. Mamet's dialogue is littered with F-bombs and other expletives (including my favorite new oxymoron, "bull-dyke cocksucker"), it is meant to be realistically coarse with a musical cadence. This is a fine line to walk. But, in a time when the media almost exclusively associates manhood with violence, invulnerability, and toughness, Mamet would be hard pressed to discuss the state of masculinity without including these head-bashing Neanderthalisms.
The show runs long and it's easy to be lulled into the rhythm of the language at the expense of losing the plot. However, Mamet's ability to retain humor in an almost philosophical discussion of masculinity and morals is worth your time and thought. And, by the way, both Mamet and Macy now have cheese to burn.
American Buffalo | through November 26 | Nextstage, GevaTheatreCenter, 75 Woodbury Boulevard | $15 | 232-GEVA, www.gevatheatre.org.