The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's revival of American Buffalo, one of David Mamet's earliest plays, still has the power to shock. The Rep uses its program and a prominent sign to warn audiences about the 1975 play's raw language, but I still heard a few nervous titters as one of its rougher characters burst into a manic, profane monologue early on.
That monologue belongs to Teach, fast-talking poker buddy of Don, the gruff owner of a Chicago resale shop who feels cheated after he sells a rare buffalo nickel to a savvy customer. Furious, Don plans a heist to lift the customer's coin collection. To pull it off, he enlists help from Teach, who's an aspiring thug, and Bobby, a young junkie whom Don cares for. As the job grows near, tensions run high. The trio's feuds are explosive, and their friendships unsentimental; at times, American Buffalo plays like a blue-collar opera of frustrated masculinity.
Brian Paulette makes a solid Teach, sauntering around the stage in a leather jacket and leading with his pelvis while he sermonizes on friendship and free enterprise. He rants: "Without this, we're just savage shitheads in the wilderness, sitting around some vicious campfire."
Teach has some of the play's funniest lines, and Paulette delivers them with a distinctive style that suggests Jeff Bridges' Big Lebowski with a hint of Boston street tough. The character's high-tension hysterics are easy to overplay, but Paulette instead taps into the desperation and insecurity that Mamet's characters all seem to mask. "Are you mad at me?" he nags Don after every heated exchange. For all of these guys, vulnerability lurks behind the bravado.
This is especially true for Bobby, a recovering addict who looks to Don for guidance (and for cash handouts). Robbie Tann is relaxed and believable in the role, rendering Bobby with stooped posture, a slow-shuffling gait and subtle withdrawal tremors that creep into his hands from time to time.
Rep veteran Robert Elliot gives a standout performance as Don, junk-shop maven and paternalistic mentor to Bobby. Elliot's controlled curmudgeonry is pitch-perfect, allowing flashes of tenderness through Don's coarse exterior. His lines are clipped but careful, brash without being cruel.
Jerry Genochio — a first-time Rep director — keeps Mamet's dialogue from becoming mere staccato banter. This production doesn't overemphasize the playwright's rhythmic conversation or make it too slick; the lines sound natural.
Scenic designer Donald Eastman's deep, asymmetrical set expertly exploits the Copaken Theatre's smaller, more intimate stage space, giving Genochio and his actors room to work while still crafting an authentic and meticulously detailed vision of Don's shop. The stage is littered with appropriately dramaturgical clutter: milk-glass vases, broken appliances, the famous "dead pig sticker" (a sinister-looking butcher's gambrel) that becomes a crucial prop.
The program notes refer to the play's characters as "Mamet's creatures." It sounds like a curious phrase, but it's also accurate. "We live like the cavemen," Teach spits at the end of the play, surrounded by the evidence of his own destructive temper. By then, the Rep's successful revival has laid bare an anguish that's guttural, violent and animal.