American Buffalo, the inaugural production of the Beckmann Theatre and the second of two David Mamet plays currently at the Phoenix Theatre, is the weaker half of the mini Mamet festival.
The 1977 play, the first play that put Mamet into the public eye, is juxtaposed with his most recent, Boston Marriage. Perhaps this pairing of young and old is why Buffalo seems lacking. The show, about petty criminals plotting a coin theft that never happens, has been lauded for its street language and metaphors about capitalism, but now, over 25 years later, the concept doesn’t seem as cutting-edge, or as interesting, compared to the fresher Boston Marriage.
Making up the character list is Bill Bruner as junk shop owner Donny, Matt Rozek as the teen gofer Bobby and James Leagre as Donny’s friend Teach. Bruner glides through the production with a glazed look in his eyes, like he is not quite in the moment, and words like “fuck” and “shit” are forced. His performance seems unnatural, even though his character is defined by indecision.
Leagre’s character, a sleazy fast-taker, comes off as high on speed and paranoia — his best scene involves trashing the shop. Rozek, for the most part, is simply there, holding the place of a necessary third character foil.
Thanks to scenic designer Tim Good for packing the shelving with hundreds of trinkets to keep the eyes entertained before the show and during intermission.
Director Michael Shelton had a challenging task taking on this modern classic. Though it can be viewed as an important piece of work for the standards it set for its time, its ability to be enjoyed for people who are not students of theater requires an exceptional staging — this one wasn’t up to par.
American Buffalo continues through Feb. 8; the Phoenix is located at 749 N. Park Ave.; 635-PLAY, www.phoenixtheatre.org.