A boffo ’Buffalo’
|By Mary C. Cusack|
Strong acting ignites drama
It is an ambitious goal to stage an intense work like David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” with a cast of college students. Yet it works, thanks to the combination of the intimacy of Lansing Community College’s Black Box Theatre, a phenomenal and atmospheric set, and a strong actor in the critical role.
“Buffalo” is one of Mamet’s most highly regarded plays, a typical all-talk and little-action piece about desperate men planning a big heist that would allow them to get ahead for once. The play takes place over the course of one day at coin collection.
The critical role is that of Teach (Michael Banghart), a con man who will sell out a friend if he can profit from it. Banghart has the look of the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl with a better haircut, and the scene-chewing acumen of Al Pacino. This makes sense considering Pacino played Teach on Broadway in 1983-84. The role requires an eely charisma, and Banghart brings an adequate level of world-weary street smarts to the role.
Teach’s foil is Bobby (Andrew Bailiff), a wounded bird of a heroin addict who may or may not be clean, and whom Don (Jason Carlen) has taken under his wing. Bailiff ’s Bobby is a marked departure from the more charismatic characters he has played at LCC. Bobby is a blank slate, showing little emotion and only hints of desperation as he hits Don up for money. Bobby has a puppylike devotion to his paternal figure, and he is street-smart enough to not trust Teach.
Bailiff and Banghart have a good chemistry, as Bobby warily eyes Teach with the guarded attitude of an abused housewife who never knows what will set off the next bout of brutality.
Teach does eventually explode violently at Bobby in a sickening outburst that finally gets Don off the morality fence. After all of Teach’s manipulation, during which Don teeters between choosing financial gain and loyalty to his friends, it is Teach’s act of physical aggression that forces Don to discover what kind of men they both are.
This moment affords Carlen the opportunity to showcase his own acting ability. While he imbues the physicality of a middle-aged pawn shop owner throughout the play, he rarely gets to show much depth until he goes toe-to-toe with Banghart, finally matching him in volume and physical presence.
Mad props go to director and must-bemad properties designer Deborah Keller, who surely cleaned out several garages to create the perfectly cluttered pawn shop. Lighting designer Michael Wright also did a fine job with a mix of location-appropriate lighting fixtures that cast a gritty and oppressive pall over the pawn shop.