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Dunciad and Illeanad 

Wednesday, Sep 11 1996
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American Buffalo
Directed by Michael Corrente. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson.

Grace of My Heart
Directed by Allison Anders. Starring Illeana Douglas, John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Davison, and Matt Dillon.

Two dubious cultural forces of the Reagan-Bush era -- playwright David Mamet, who attacked capitalist excess with attention-getting minimalism, and Spy magazine, which attacked suck-up journalism with attention-getting satirical excessiveness -- met in 1989, when Spy contributor David Ives penned "Speed-the-Play: Presenting the Collected Works of David Mamet in Just Under Four Minutes." Noting that a Mamet text consists of "little more than than 'no,' 'yes,' 'but,' 'and' and 'fuck,' half of them italicized" and that even Mamet's most ambitious texts "run a little under 90 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission," Ives provided ruthless yet faithful adaptations of Mamet's major works, including a 53-second version of American Buffalo. His trick was simple: He stated the stuff Mamet's characters always dance around. In his minute rendition of Buffalo, one loser asks the other, "So what do we talk about?" The answer is: "The nature of life. And we say 'fuck' a lot." The third bottom-feeder fulfills both parts of that prescription when he enters with the words, "Fuckin' life."

Of course, Ives was unfair: Part of the fun of seeing an early Mamet play like American Buffalo came precisely from registering how much ambiguity and tension the playwright could squeeze out of "no," "yes," "but," "and," and "fuck." (American Buffalo premiered in Chicago in 1975; I saw it once in L.A., and once in Mamet's recent home base, Cambridge.) By removing the explanations of gutter slang and custom that less audacious playwrights would take pains to put in, Mamet made audiences feel like eavesdroppers; he relied on hints and rhythms to create an aura of revelation and suspense, and deployed profanity so cunningly that epithets came off as lewd inside jokes. Mamet's plays brought to the stage some of the unadulterated urban energy that the crime movies of the '30s and '40s brought to the screen, and with the same liberal target -- the System. But when Mamet himself began to write and direct movies, and when others turned his plays into features, his verbal crackle often short-circuited into dead air. For Mamet's stop-and-start speeches to reach their maximum potency, spectators must be able to sense the performers' breath rate and heartbeat; without that intimacy, what James Agee said of Hemingway applies to Mamet -- his "talk, which on the page used to seem so nearly magical and is still so very good, sounds, on the screen, as cooked-up and formal as an eclogue."

The unholy trio that botches a coin-collection heist in American Buffalo consists of a junk-shop owner named Don, his young gopher, Bobby, and a volatile moocher, Teach. Despite the casting of Dennis Franz as Don, Sean Nelson (of Fresh) as Bobby, and Dustin Hoffman as Teach, the movie version of American Buffalo should go a long way toward pushing Mamet's mannerisms as close to extinction as, well, the American buffalo. The director, Michael Corrente (who made the pallid Scorsesoid flick Federal Hill), merely shoots the script, expanding the action ever so slightly to let in more of the grimy atmosphere outside Don's Resale Shop (the film was shot in a dingy part of Providence, R.I.) and to include a rest stop in Teach's book-strewn hotel room that portrays him as a closet intellectual (after all, he is called Teach). At first, the black-comic snap of the back-alley repartee comes as a relief after the purely reflexive cursing and whining we're used to in dark-side-of-the-city movies, especially when Hoffman tears into Teach's terrifying opening stretch, which starts with him complaining about an imagined insult at a coffee shop and ends with him proclaiming, "The only way to teach these people is to kill them." (He has another choice curse later on: "Guys like these, I like to fuck their wives.") Hoffman is a born fulminator, and you can appreciate his actorliness -- the ponytail he's grown gives him a profile like the Indian's on the buffalo nickel, and he and Franz work overtime both with the props specified in the script, such as (to quote Mamet's stage directions) a "dead-pig leg-spreader," and others that provide barbed, offhand punctuation, like the cheap cigarette lighter they exchange between protestations of loyalty and friendship.

But without the open space around the actors that onstage can let their rants acquire the illusion of substance, the characters -- especially Hoffman's -- swiftly grow tiresome. All you see is these two scavengers, Don and Teach, venting their resentments as they hatch a robbery scheme that's presented as an example of "free enterprise": Teach describes it as the freedom of the individual "to Embark on any Fucking Course that he sees fit in order to secure his honest chance to make a profit." Franz has a couple of advantages over the rest of the cast -- especially in this production, since Corrente and Nelson conceive Bobby as such an innocent it's hard to imagine him as a former drug user. Don shows a soft side in his paternal attitude toward his protege, and he also gets to react laconically to the hyperverbal Teach. So Franz can use his full arsenal of sneaky expressions -- including preternaturally tightened eyes and a sweaty, macho pout -- confident that the camera will pick up on them. Franz, in fact, is prodigious; he expertly conveys the conflicts inside Don as he ponders whether to stick by Bobby as his original partner on the coin job, or to cut him loose in favor of Teach, or to bring in a third man.

The problem is, if Teach is too coherent a character -- a desperate fuck-up -- Don is incoherent, a man whose half-thoughts and broken allegiances make sense only as signs of mental fatigue. Franz's display of humanity begins to seem as much a technical feat as Hoffman's fiddling with a car antenna (he uses it as a catapult to launch some overcooked bacon) or rocking back and forth in a rolling chair before taking a swipe at Nelson. Whenever the one-to-one action flags, director Corrente keeps Mamet's Indictment of American Business Ethics going by shoehorning a photo of the Stars and Stripes or a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. into his compositions. (Since Nelson is black, Teach's protestation to Don, "I'm not your nigger," acquires an added sting.) But Corrente can't prevent us from seeing that under the smoke and mirrors, all Mamet has to offer is a dirty-mouthed Dunciad of the criminal fringe. Despite its place in the theater history books, it's a marginal achievement.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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