American Buffalo
directed by Michael Corrente
(Orion, 1996)

Few American actors fill the screen with the same intensity as Dustin Hoffman. Dennis Franz is one. So let the two of them lock horns for 87 minutes in a play by Pulitzer-prize-winning dramatist David Mamet and you're bound to light up the theater, right?

Well, yes and no, if the play is American Buffalo.

American Buffalo is the story of two nickel-and-dime street hustlers, Donnie (Franz) and "Teach" (Hoffman), who spend as much time trying to hustle one another as they do their customers. Donnie runs a run-down second-hand shop on a boarded-up street in an unnamed city. Teach lives, without visible means of support, in a flea-bag hotel nearby.

Most days they're content to either fleece customers or cheat each other at cards. But today is different; Donnie has something on his mind. A nickel. It's a buffalo nickel, of course, hence part of the reason for the title. Donnie sold the nickel to a customer who lives around the corner for $90. Now he's not sure he did the right thing. In fact, he's sure he should have charged more, though he can't be too sure because he can't remember the exact date on the coin. So he devises a plan to steal the nickel back from his customer, with help from his young black gofer Bobbie (Sean Nelson).

But complications set in when Teach decides that Bobbie's too green for the job; Teach wants in, and he want Bobbie out. But Donnie, who's developed the bad habit of personal loyalty, isn't too sure. So Teach goes to work on him, like a rat chewing on the woodwork, until everything collapses from the inside.

Mamet (House of Games, Oleanna) has much to say in American Buffalo. Unfortunately he says it all with words. American Buffalo hearkens back in many ways to the theater of the absurd. In it, two or three characters are taught some kind of hellish limbo, torture one another with oblique dialogue for an act or two, then slither off into an anti-climax. It works well on stage for several reasons, one of which is that we expect stage performances to be packed with dialogue. Another is that beyond all the silly talk, the playwright has something serious to say, even if it's only that we're all caught up in a lot of silly talk.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Mamet in American Buffalo. At some point themes do emerge in the dialogue. "There is no law," Teach screams as he overturns Donnie's shop piece by piece. "The world is lies. There is no friendship." But rather than building to the lines, Mamet lets them strike out of nowhere, long after he's exhausted his audience with the rat-a-tat-tat of Donnie and Teach's senseless argument.

Yes, the statements are pointed; yes, they're accurate, at least for Teach. But they're nothing we haven't seen for ourselves over and over in the previous hour-plus of infighting.

The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, subscribed to the theory that if you show a bomb ticking, you must let it go off. American Buffalo is artfully crafted, well timed and loaded with dynamite. Unfortunately, it never goes off. No wonder so many critics considered it a bomb.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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