Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
Don's antique shop, in “American Buffalo,” has become one of the fundamental spaces of the stage, like Willy Loman's kitchen and Lear's blasted heath and the place, wherever it is, where they wait for Godot. In it, David Mamet created a long day and night in which Don and Teach, and later Bobby, restlessly waited and talked about a job they were going to do, while they uneasily wondered if they should, or could, do it.
The core of “American Buffalo,” and all of Mamet's plays, is in the vernacular of the characters. They have a way of implying just what they're thinking, in ways they do not intend. “If I could come up with some of that stuff you were interested in,” Teach asks Don, “would you be interested in it?” And “the only way to teach these people is to kill them.” And when a gun is introduced into the plot: “God forbid something inevitable occurs.” The shop is a shadowy space filled with objects we cannot imagine much demand for. Don (Dennis Franz) has made it into a sort of warren for himself, and in this film version by Michael Corrente there are alcoves and mezzanines receding into the shadows--caves of tarnished treasure. We gather Don supports himself in ways other than by selling these things. Teach (Dustin Hoffman) hangs out in the store, and the two of them engage in an endless, desultory conversation--talk filled with possibilities, eventualities, potentialities, hypotheses and folk wisdom. Bobby (Sean Nelson, from “Fresh”), the black kid who works for Don, imperfectly understands the occupation of his employer, but guesses some and wants to know more.
The action in the play involves the possible theft of a coin collection. A man named Fletch may assist them in the crime. Much is made of Fletch: He looms importantly in their regard. When Fletch doesn't turn up as scheduled, various fallback options are explored. “What a day,” Don and Teach agree, again and again, as if the day had created them instead of them creating the day.
It is a cliche, but true, that some plays have their real life on the stage. “American Buffalo” is a play like that--or, at least, it is not a play that finds its life in this movie. I've seen the play more than once, most memorably in London with Al Pacino and J.J. Johnston, and have never grown tired of it; the language contains such rich humor just beneath the surface. It's not a comedy (although sometimes we laugh), but an elaborate playwright's joke. Mamet, like one of his characters, invents a labyrinthine, convoluted spiel leading nowhere, and like a magician distracts us with his words while elaborately not producing a rabbit from his hat. The insight, I believe, is that these characters do this every day: Uneasily perched in the darkness of the store, uncomfortable with the light and normality outside, they make plans, and plans, and plans.