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November 15, 2011

Center Stage production serves up raw slice of life in 'American Buffalo'

Felling like one of the forgotten 99 percent lately?

Step into the seedy re-sell-it shop that has been painstakingly and brilliantly constructed in the Head Theater at Center Stage and you can be connected to enough distrust, frustration and contempt to fuel a thousand Occupy Wall Street movements.

David Mamet's "American Buffalo" may be set in mid-1970s Chicago and may be concerned with one attempt at one absurd little crime, but it could be set anywhere, any time.

And it could be the story of any scheme to strike out at a cold, unfair world that seems to have stacked everything against the little guy, a world where even a card game among friends might be rigged.

Mamet electrified the theater world with "American Buffalo" more than three decades ago. Something about the language -- not just the unfettered vulgarity of it, but the cadence and even poetry of it -- struck a nerve. And although society's losers have been the subject of many a work of literature, theater and cinema, Mamet's particular trio of misfits still stands out.

This is certainly ...

a good time to be hit by the raw force of "American Buffalo," with so many people out of work, out of luck, out of ideas.

When shop owner Don realizes, a little too late, that he may have sold a valuable coin too cheaply and plots to get it back, he's Everyman for a moment -- all of us who didn't buy that stock or dumped it too soon, who blinked at the car dealership instead of walking away. Don just wants to break the cycle, shift the odds in his favor, get a leg up.

Who hasn't wanted to do that? (We just don't all start thinking about crime.)

Don has befriended the unlikeliest of co-conspirators in a street kid named Bob, who may or may not have a clue. And then there's Teach, the volcanic pal who hones in on this sure thing, inevitably upsetting the fragile plan.

There is something curiously fascinating and touching about the way these three plot and dream, the way they clash and parry. Even when things turn ugly, you want to cheer them on and imagine that someday, somehow, they will do better.

It is particularly easy to root for the team assembled by Center Stage. The first-rate cast, directed with an extraordinary sense of pacing and nuance by Liesl Tommy, reaches a level of believability that is almost frightening.

William Hill offers a finely shaded, sympathetic performance as Don, a character filled with so many bad ideas, good intentions and sensible advice ("You can get an idea and deviate from it"). Hill doesn't just put telling inflections on every line, but also makes silences between them speak volumes. His persistently worried face is another rich communicator.

Rusty Ross effectively uses physical quirks and twitches to mirror the slow, off-kilter thinking inside the troubled Bob. In the finale, when everything has gone so weirdly wrong, the way Ross reaches out to clutch the shirttail of his mentor Don, proves quite poignant.

Jordan Lage nearly steals the show as Teach, moving through Don's store like a caged, underfed animal, lashing out physically or verbally with equal force. It's a startling achievement.

In masterful fashion, the actor conveys all the funny, scary and pathetic qualities of this spring-loaded guy, who wants to believe there's something out there for the likes of him, but knows better. Lage makes each Teach-ing moment hit home.

The cast has an assist in the realism department from the Neil Patel's super-detailed scenic design.

Even if you can't get up close to the set, you'll likely sense the completeness and depth. Every nook and cranny of Don's store is filled with second-hand stuff, even shelves that cannot be seen by anyone except the performers; the edge of the stage, too, is jammed with used merchandise.

Kathleen Geldard's spot-on costumes and Lap Chi Chu's deceptively simple lighting add the finishing layers on a trenchant production that exerts a chilling, long-lasting hold.

Performances continue through Dec. 11.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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