Getting Down to Business with Backyard Renaissance Theatre’s Pitch-Perfect ‘American Buffalo’

Glengarry Glen Ross, a play about four shady Chicago real estate agents, won playwright David Mamet a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. But his earlier 1975 American Buffalo, a play about a hapless Chicago junk shop owner and his two buddies, had already captured Mamet’s cynical take on the seedy underbelly of American business culture.

Francis Gercke & Richard Baird [photo (c.) Daren Scott]

San Diego’s Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company opened its production of American Buffalo Saturday, November 16, at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, a modest venue located in a not yet gentrified part of the city’s East Village that is the precisely the type of neighborhood in which Mamet’s play takes place.

Backyard Renaissance has selected a splendid cast, notably Richard Baird as Teach and Francis Gercke as Donny, to execute Mamet’s emotional pyrotechnics under the seamless, impeccably timed direction of Rosina Reynolds. Although Mamet does not spell out Teach’s profession, the playwright makes it clear that his track record as thief and break-in specialist amply qualify him to be drafted by Donny to assist in a planned robbery of a valuable coin collection.

Mamet does, however, endow Teach with an ego as towering as the high-rise condos that line Chicago’s tony lakefront neighborhoods, and Richard Baird completely incarnates Teach’s bravura physical and emotional swagger from the instant he enters Donny’s shabby store. In truth, the word swagger is insufficient to capture the insinuating vocal inflection and cadence, the insistent, jabbing hand gestures, and the preening posture that Baird has craftily fused into the manipulative Teach. His Teach is a wonder to behold.

If Baird enters with trumpets blaring, Francis Gercke starts his Donny with a whispered determination that slowly develops his character’s emotional trajectory over the course of the play until his shouts of anger and frustration equal Baird’s fortissimo blasts. Gercke displays the necessary sangfroid to carry out Mamet’s slender revenge plot, in which Donny realizes he has been taken advantage of by a well-heeled coin dealer in the sale of an old nickel—the American Buffalo of the play’s title—and decides he will get back by stealing the guy’s entire coin collection while he is on vacation.

Marcel Ferrin & Francis Gercke [photo (c.) Daren Scott]

That this customer is indeed out of town, leaving his residence vulnerable, is based on the testimony of Donny’s young adult, mentally slow, “lost-child” shop assistant Bobby, played with dogged assurance and aptly obsequious overtones by Marcel Ferrin. We can only speculate on Bobby’s exact relationship to Donny, because Mamet’s urban male characters are guys of action, not self-revelation. But when Teach strong-arms Donny into removing Bobby form participating in the planned coin collection heist, Bobby exacts his own clumsy revenge.

Under Reynolds suave direction, American Buffalo unfolds like a piece of beautiful chamber music, carefully understating hints of the plot’s explosive denouement. Tony Cucuzzella’s set efficiently establishes the junk shop’s low-class clutter with minimalist precision, and Jessica John Gercke’s period casual attire for the guys is—if you can excuse the oxymoron—tasteless perfection. I cannot get Teach’s pale green, clingy polyester shirt out of my mind. Yes, we wore shirts like that in the 1970s, but the memory of that style and fabric is painful! And the floppy, wide collars on Donny’s shirt and sweater-jacket fix the period with equal assurance.

In testimony to the staying power of American Buffalo, its return to Broadway in a production starring Laurence Fishburne as Donny and Sam Rockwell as Teach is slated for March 24, 2020, at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” is presented by the Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 930 Tenth Ave. in downtown San Diego. The production runs through December 7, 2019, and the November 17 performance was seen for this review.

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