Nickled and Dimed: A Classic Play About a Conniving Junk-Store Owner Finds New Footing

Profane poetry and the art — or lack thereof — of the superior swindle are playwright David Mamet's domain. Whether you judge the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago native fearless or faulty, Mamet's ear for the rhythm and texture of lowlife American dialogue is flawless. With crisp direction from Barbara Damashek and crackling performances from its three-man cast, his American Buffalo burns an indelible groove as it closes Aurora Theatre's 22nd season.

The classic tragedy about three bottom-feeding crooks, desperate to steal a coin collection crowned by what they believe to be a valuable “Buffalo nickel,” pushed Mamet to the ever-advancing frontline of contemporary theater when it premiered on Broadway in 1977. He went on to write Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), Oleanna (1992), The Anarchist (2012), and numerous other works for stage, film, and television.

Donny (Paul Vincent O'Connor, Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran, in one of the finest, most sophisticated performances of the Bay Area theater season) is a junk shop owner with an all-consuming passion for “business.” He's taken slow-witted Bobby (Rafael Jordan, grasping what could be a slender role with lucidity and surprising power) under his wing and apprenticed the young man into a small-time thug. Enter Teach (James Carpenter, who goes from sly in Act I to volatile in Act II), jaded and twisted from a lifetime of petty thievery and crime. Every encounter is a chance for a con: an opportunity to exploit, wheedle, or explode into outright violence.

When a plan to break into the home of a customer who recognized a valuable coin in Donny's shop is hatched, then botched, the threesome pay for a crime they're not clever enough to commit. It's each man for himself and no one wins; it's American capitalism cannibalizing itself. Captured on a chalkboard in the three-sided theater's lobby, “How much is getting rich worth?” is the play's central question. For these fellows, “nearly everything” is the answer.

The 1975 script — in which countless objects are called “thing” and “you know what I'm sayin'” is as common as four-letter words — could trip, stall, or swear the audience to death. If he weren't so funny, Mamet would be a bore. And if Damashek's direction wasn't so deft or the actors' handling of character so precisely sculpted, American Buffalo would shred, like a worn-out cigar. Instead, there's giddy humor in the men's misguided plotting — and gruesome violence in the play's climax. Lurking behind every curse and conniving word is shadowy betrayal, eroding the fiber of friendship and freedom.

Pitchfork, snowshoe, and spade “chandeliers,” propane tanks and dusty hubcaps hovering in set designer Eric Sinkkonen's cluttered, gray-brown junk shop — “Don's Resale Shop” — complement and counter Cassandra Carpenter's sleazy, sloppy costume designs. Every detail bolsters the drama without detracting. If the two-hour play rocks your soul and the dented disputes leave you giggling with delight, Mamet — provocative, profane, and prescient — continues to do the job he set out to do, some 39 years ago.

Impeccably presented, the Aurora's production is a stunner.

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