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Three Iconic Characters
“You can't explain them; that's why they're mysteries. The purpose of the theater is not primarily to deal with social issues; it's to deal with spiritual issues.”
—David Mamet, South Carolina Review and Rendezvousing with Contemporary Writers by Hank Nuwer
“Action talks and bullshit walks,” asserts the plainspoken owner of Don’s Resale Shop. The father figure in Mamet’s play, a dying breed like the buffalo of the American plains, Donny and the life lessons he shares are our first glimpse into the nature of mentorship at work in this world. “There’s business and there’s friendship,” Donny preaches to Bobby, assured of the inviolability of the latter. Donny, the teacher, the moralizer, like men in so many of Mamet’s plays, finds veracity in the usual place – the pursuit of a dollar, sometimes honest and sometimes not, but always with his buddy’s back in mind.
Bobby’s disquieting words, “I’m sorry, Donny”, frame Mamet’s play. The consequence of loyalty is a lesson well-learned for this pupil, surrogate son, and “gopher” caught between uneven views of friendship and enterprise. Dependent upon Donny for money, food, and apprenticeship, Bobby accepts his elder’s teachings even as his trial by fire tests the allegiance he’s been taught.
WALTER COLE, called TEACH
“There is no law. There is no right and wrong. The world is lies. There is no friendship,” Teach decries of the state of affairs facing upright men like him. Like his business associate Donny, Teach straddles the ethical border between commerce and crime. Preaching an epistemology of the streets to his fellow conspirators, Teach, as his epithet suggests, believes himself an authority on the art of survival who is called to instruct in the codes governing men on the fringe. Mistrustful and frustrated by the world’s inability to recognize his talent and knowledge, he warns Donny, “A guy can be too loyal.”
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Reviews for American Buffalo
Washington Post | Washington City Paper | Metro Weekly
American Buffalo Still Running Strong
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
How fitting that Joy Zinoman's parting directorial act for Studio Theatre should be "American Buffalo," David Mamet's cunning portrait of small-time thievery. Like the company she founded, the piece dates from the mid-1970s. And it takes place in Zinoman's home town of Chicago, where, as a child actress, she first indulged her passion for the stage.
But these sentimental associations are not the only resonant facets apparent on this splendid evening. The three-character tragicomedy plays to the qualities that Studio audiences have come to admire in Zinoman's best work: antennae finely tuned for actors' emotional pitches; an affinity for the verbal altitudes scaled by the theater's best writers; an abiding love of the mysterious alchemy often catalyzed in Studio's enveloping little spaces.
(Is it a weird bit of cosmic plotting that the director makes her exit with the words of one David M. as another -- David Muse -- prepares to take over her position as the company's artistic director at summer's end?)
You do wonder as you sit down to the 35-year-old play, set in the cluttered junk shop of Edward Gero's Donny -- a guy who's sort of a mole on the rear end of capitalism -- how well "American Buffalo" is going to hold up. Veteran theatergoers may feel as if the epithet-spewing miscreants Mamet conjures are no longer unique; his work has inspired a generation of imitators. And sometimes these days, Mamet's staccato dialogue of half-finished thoughts can sound like a parody of Mamet.
Thanks, though, to some perceptive casting and, as it turns out, the durability of these hard-luck characters, "American Buffalo" remains a gleefully flinty slice of burnt-out life: taut, funny and, in the end, surprisingly touching. It will occur to you that Mamet's caper comedy is also the affecting story of the yearning of men for sons, and of sons for fathers.
Zinoman gathers her A-team designers -- Russell Metheny on set, Helen Q. Huang on costumes, Michael Giannitti on lighting -- to inject visual panache into the detritus of Donny's existence. The first things we hear and see are the wheels of a passing elevated train and the shadow it casts on the doodads that fill the shelves and display cases of Donny's bleak little domain. It's an emporium so halfhearted that the stolen goods in the place hardly look worth fencing.
The discards include the slovenly types who hang around the shop, hitting up Donny for money and attention: the taciturn young junkie Bobby (Jimmy Davis) and the bumbling street hustler Teach (Peter Allas), a walking repository of really stupid brainstorms. You get the feeling that not only would these dolts score miserably on their SATs, they would not even be able to find the testing site.
"This is common sense!" the gold-chained, Fu Manchu'd Teach exclaims at one point. The occasion for his declaration is the absurdly backward plan he and Donny are devising, to burglarize the home of a customer who had been in the store to buy a buffalo-head nickel for a sum that Donny considered princely. Convinced that the gentleman is a collector sitting on a fortune in coins, they hatch the ludicrous scheme, which includes Teach's genius notion of calling the victim to make sure he's not home.
That is, if he can manage to dial the right number.
Allas, in the surefire nincompoop's role, conveys a Teach of apt, hair-trigger volatility and truly laughable cluelessness. It's a tribute to the performance that he can seem both clownish and dangerous; the gun he maladroitly flashes sure helps in the illusion. "I am calm!" he insists, wild-eyed, at another moment. "I'm just upset!"
Entwined in the risible shenanigans is a rawer story, of the paternal feelings Donny has for Bobby, a boy of meager intelligence lost to addiction. Davis brings a spectral vacancy to Bobby that fully elicits in Gero's Donny the requisite instincts for protectiveness, tinged with resentment. Is Bobby's neediness a mask for a more manipulative nature? The subtlety of the piece is such that we get only a tantalizing inkling that he's an operator, and that in suspecting Bobby's motives, Teach may for once in his life be onto something.
Like the others, Gero proves a fine physical embodiment of his character, and he makes authentic Donny's credulousness, his tolerance for the excesses of both Teach and Bobby. Early on, there's a lovely bit in which Donny schools the young addict on the importance of eating a nutritious breakfast, and Gero conducts the lesson in an earnest way that allows us to sense the irony, even if Donny doesn't.
A plain old honest approach, one that keenly reveals what these characters mean to one another, takes an audience far. It's the route Zinoman has relied on for a long time, and at the end of this particular road serves her exceedingly well, one more time.
by David Mamet. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Sound, Gil Thompson; dialect coach, Elizabeth van den Berg; fight choreographer, Robb Hunter. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through June 13 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit http://www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.
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Mamet, brought to sizzling life at Studio
The junk dealer is just the most obvious bit of terrific in Joy Zinoman’s swan-song production at the Studio Theatre, but boy, is he ever terrific: Grubbily paternal, weary and watchful, dangerous and mean but wholly human, Ed Gero’s Donny Dubrow will break your heart, if he doesn’t break your head first. A biggish dog among small-time hoods in a marginal ’70s Chicago neighborhood, Donny has earned the respect of swaggering, blustery Teach (Peter Allas) and vague, strung-out Bobby (Jimmy Davis) in part because he’s the cunning, level-headed, methodical one in the bunch—though that’s relative at best, as will become clear when the half-baked heist at the story’s center begins to unravel. Donny, having sold a rare buffalo nickel to a collector for what he suspects is too little, means to steal it back, and the rest of the man’s coins along with it. Sniffing a big haul, and arguing that unreliable Bobby won’t make the best assistant, Teach talks his way into being second-story man on the job. The rest of the play’s brisk two acts is mostly about ratcheting up the tension as the older guys wait for another conspirator who never arrives, wondering the while whether Bobby has betrayed them, whether out of anger or the need to feed a jones. Allas’s Teach has the quick temper of a man who senses he’s not quite as smart as he needs to be in a culture where savvy can mean the difference between success and scraping by; Jimmy Davis’ Bobby is twitchy and vulnerable, but alert sometimes too, just alert enough to make you wonder if there isn’t something behind Teach’s suspicions. Zinoman’s pitch-perfect production, caged in Russell Metheny’s fantastically grimy junk-shop set, leaves you feeling like an invisible fourth member of this hapless hardscrabble dog-pack, watching the others circle and sniff and snarl, knowing the first lunge and the first bite are coming any second. It’s gruesome and profane, raucously funny and wrenchingly sad, and it’s one of the finest acts of theater you’re likely to see this year.
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One of the more traditional ways of celebrating an event of particular significance is with a champagne toast -- a fleet of slender flute glasses filled with bright, gently sparkling wine raised in good cheer and happiness.
Joy Zinoman elected to take a very different approach to saluting her final directing credit as founding artistic director of Washington's Studio Theatre. She's taken that bottle of champagne – in the form of a new production of David Mamet's American Buffalo – shaken it as hard as she possibly can and then left us all waiting with dreadful anticipation for that moment when the bottle will explode. It's a toast that might not get you tipsy but will leave you perched on the edge of your seat drinking in all the splendid tension.
American Buffalo first premiered in Chicago in 1975 (the same year Zinoman founded the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory) and introduced audiences to the patois that marks all of Mamet's work. Sentences are clipped, seemingly sprouting up out of nothing and just as abruptly evaporating away. It's as though we are always coming in just after the show has begun, just after something completely forgettable but critically important has taken place.
''Fuck'' can, and often does, play any part necessary in creating a dialogue. People are fucked, get fucked, are fucks. And the threat of violence – physical or mental – is always present. That's where the tension comes into play. The single note of a violin suspended in the air for what seems like an eternity, a rising nausea of anxious anticipation not for what will come next, but for how bad it will be when it finally arrives.
Adding to the fantastic claustrophobia of the play is the fact that it begins, unravels and ends in the cramped, overstuffed storefront that is Don's Resale Shop. Donny (Edward Gero) and the young, intensely fragile Bobby (Jimmy Davis) are in the middle (of course) of an argument that isn't necessarily an argument. Bobby has done something wrong (or is agonizing over having done something wrong), while Donny volleys back and forth between a kind of fatherly anger and paternal empathy.
But they aren't father and son. They are business partners in a scheme to steal back a nickel that Donny sold to a seemingly well-off businessman. That the guy was willing to spend nearly $100 on a nickel means the thing had to be more valuable than Donny suspected. Which makes the guy a no good fuck -- pulling a deal like that on Donny.
Fueling the fire and later complicating matters beyond all normal reason is the know-it-all, not good for a lot Teach (Peter Allas). A wannabe big shot with nothing to back it up, Teach has a chip on his shoulder as big as Wrigley Field. Trouble is, odds seem better than average that even Teach doesn't remember why that is.
And that's the beauty of a Mamet play and the brilliance of what Zinoman and Studio Theatre have created with it. Performed in The Milton Theatre on Studio's second floor, American Buffalo has been intimately and snugly staged. The audience is, almost literally, placed too close for comfort.
And that's a very good thing.
It's all the better to appreciate the great dynamic created by Gero and Davis. Gero has made a fascinating and intricate construction of his Donny. No matter how far away the character has to wander, no matter how many questionable boundaries he presses against, even at his most despicable Gero is able to lace Donny with a gentle humanity. He's real, tangible, wearing his mistakes like a man who has been taking care of himself a long time and angry like a man whose downright sick of it. It's a fantastic performance.
Teach is Donny's opposite number and Allas grabs all those cues. He's insufferable and slimy, filled with false promises and bankrupt ideas. Allas's portrayal is marked by an amazing physicality, communicating as much with the way he enters a room as with the way he slams a door or kicks a trashcan. There is no care for anyone else in the world except himself. Allas has delivered a character to the stage that we want to be rid of even though we dread his absence.
Davis is the third rail of this production. Nervous and shaky. Empty headed and addled. Maybe a junkie, maybe a little disturbed. Most definitely a kid who is desperate for someone, anyone to help him out. He's just not sure what that means.
Where Allas has Teach's puffed chest bellowing and Gero Donny's off-kilter ''Father knows best'' demeanor, Davis is rapidly fraying electrical wire. He's more dangerous than either of his ill-chosen mentors realize. It's a secret that informs Davis's dead-on performance and lingers with us after we depart.
Which, ultimately, seems to be the point. The lives of the three men rattling around Don's Resale Shop seem as though they might carry on even after the curtain has closed on American Buffalo. That's the beauty of a Mamet play.
And that will also be the lingering echo of the work of Joy Zinoman. Even after this curtain closes, the contributions she has made to D.C. theater will carry on.
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Peter Allas (Teach) was born and raised in Chicago. He began his acting career in New York with such leading roles as Cliff in William Mastrosimone’s The Woolgatherer and Vince in The Gingham Dog at the Phoenix Theatre and The Adding Machine at Lincoln Center. He starred in the world premiere (both in Los Angeles and in New York) of Hannah Logan’s Trailerville. Recent productions include roles in Anna in the Tropics at The Seattle Repertory Theatre; Expecting Isabel at the Mark Taper Forum; About Faith at the Beverly Hills Playhouse; Speed the Plow at the Skylight Theatre; Lou/Lu and Detective Story (LA Weekly and Critics Award winner) at the Lee Strasburg Institute. Other theatre credits include House of Blue Leaves at Alliance Repertory Theater and Minor Demons and Lakeboat at The Tiffany Theatre. Mr. Allas has lived in Los Angeles for the past 21 years, starring in over 75 films and television series. He is most often recognized for playing Vincenzo on Early Edition, as Mario the calzone man on Seinfeld and as the hired killer Salvatore on The Sopranos. His other standout television credits include Without A Trace, ER, Day Break, NYPD Blue, Strong Medicine, Pointe Pleasant, Arl$$, Columbo, Mike Hammer, Perfect Strangers, and Crime Story. He has also appeared in such films as Spiderman 2, S.W.A.T., End of the Game, Cast a Deadly Spell, Lovers of Deceit and Defenseless; and the foreign film My Brother Jack for which he was nominated for best supporting actor in Italy. In addition, Mr. Allas directed the 1994 Los Angeles revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Savage In Limbo and Italian-American Reconciliation with Shanleyfest in 2000.
Jimmy Davis (Bobby) makes his Studio Theatre debut with American Buffalo. He last appeared in Washington as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, directed David Muse. In New York, he participated in New York Theater Workshop’s reading of new plays including PONY, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, and Feast of Fools, directed by Chay Yew. He has also performed in Hamlet at the Pearl Theatre Company and Robots vs. Fake Robots with Clubbed Thumb, directed by Sam Gold. His Off Off Broadway credits include 2Gents by poortom productions and What Happened When with Rising Phoenix Repertory. In New Harmony’s production of Othello, Mr. Davis played Cassio. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Juilliard School.
Edward Gero (Donny) last appeared at The Studio Theatre in Seafarer by Conor McPherson. His other Studio Theatre credits include leading roles in Shining City, bash: latterday plays, Skylight (for which he received the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Resident Play), Three Sisters and Conversations With My Father. He was recently seen in the title role of Signature Theatre’s Sweeney Todd, as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre and as Gloucester in King Lear at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he has been in over seventy productions since 1983. Some other favorite roles include Hotspur in Henry IV; Bolingbroke in Richard II; and Macduff in Macbeth. Mr. Gero was named an Artistic Associate of Center Stage in Baltimore, debuting as Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker. He recently reprised his Helen Hayes-nominated performance as Richard Nixon in Nixon’s Nixon at Round House Theater. He has also worked at Olney Theatre, Arena Stage, Theater J, Barter Theatre, Classic Stage Company and South Street Theatre. His film and television credits include Die Hard II and Striking Distance. He narrates for The Discovery Channel; the documentary Before The Dinosaurs won the 2006 Emmy Award. He has received four Helen Hayes Awards and 13 nominations. Mr. Gero is an Associate Professor of Theater at George Mason University and instructor for the University of Maryland and the Academy of Classical Acting associated with The Shakespeare Theater Company.
Directors and Designers
Joy Zinoman (Director) is the Founding Artistic Director of The Studio Theatre, where she directs her 70th and final production as Founding Artistic Director with American Buffalo. She recently received the inaugural Mayor’s Art Award for Visionary Leadership. She received the 2005 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Director for A Number by Caryl Churchill. In 2005, she also received The Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community. She received the 2000 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Director for Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard, which also received the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Production. She has led The Studio Theatre through 178 productions which have garnered 225 Helen Hayes Award nominations for Theatre Excellence. Ms. Zinoman has received nine additional Helen Hayes Award nominations for Outstanding Direction. Other recent directing credits include Moonlight, The Year of Magical Thinking, Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Road to Mecca, The History Boys, Shining City, The Pillowman, Crestfall, Red Light Winter, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Afterplay, Ivanov, Far Away, Topdog/Underdog, The Play about the Baby, Privates on Parade and The Invention of Love. She has previously been awarded The Mayor’s Art Award for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline and the Washingtonian of the Year Award. She also received the Star Tribune Critics Award for Outstanding Director for the Minneapolis run of Topdog/Underdog at Mixed Blood Theatre Company. She was honored with the 2000 Arts Founder Award from the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, and in February 2003, Ms. Zinoman was named a WETA Hometown Hero. Washingtonian magazine named her one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Washington. She is a master teacher and directs The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, now in its thirty-fifth year. This is her last production as Artistic Director.
Russell Metheny (Set Designer) is the Resident Set Designer for The Studio Theatre, designing more than 50 productions since co-founding the Theatre with Joy Zinoman in 1978. He has designed The Studio’s expansions and renovations. Studio Theatre productions include Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Seafarer, Grey Gardens, The History Boys, Shining City, Ivanov, Topdog/Underdog, The York Realist, A Class Act, The Play About the Baby, The Invention of Love, Indian Ink, Bash, Far East, The Three Sisters and The Slab Boys Trilogy. Regional credits include productions at Indiana Repertory Theatre, Great Lakes Theater Festival, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Asolo Theatre, Jupiter Theatre, The Old Globe, Geffen Playhouse, Dallas Theater Center, Missouri Repertory Theatre, Studio Arena Theatre, Geva Theatre Center, Goodman Theatre, Portland Stage Company and Weston Playhouse. Recent productions include The Heavens Are Hung In Black, The Light In The Piazza, Iron Kisses, The Piano Lesson, Measure For Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Gentleman From Indiana, The Lady From Rwanda, Searching For Eden, Two Rooms, King Lear, Julius Caesar and Machinal. He most recently designed The Comedy of Errors and The Seagull for Idaho and Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Upcoming productions include, Othello, The Woman in Black for Idaho and Great Lakes Theatres; Twelve Angry Men for Asolo Theatre and Jupiter Theatre and Superior Donuts for The Studio Theatre.
Michael Giannitti (Lighting Designer) is the Resident Lighting Designer at The Studio Theatre; he has designed over 30 productions including Reasons to Be Pretty, In the Red and Brown Water, Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Seafarer, The Road To Mecca, Shining City, The Pillowman, Red Light Winter, Fat Pig, Afterplay, The Russian National Postal Service, Galileo and Seven Guitars, which earned him a Helen Hayes Award Nomination. He designed lighting on Broadway for August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and for its pre-Broadway tour which included Arena Stage. He has designed extensively for Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Trinity Repertory Theatre, Capital Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare & Company and Weston Playhouse. Mr. Giannitti has also designed for Virginia Stage, Indiana Repertory Theatre, Portland Stage Company, George Street Playhouse, Jomandi, Yale Repertory Theatre and Olney Theatre Center. New York dance lighting credits include Dance Theatre Workshop, Dancespace, The Joyce, The Kitchen and P.S. 122. Additional regional venues include the Spoleto Festival and Walker Art Center. He has been on the faculty at Bennington College since 1992. As a Fulbright Senior Specialist, he taught at the National University of Art, Theatre and Cinema in Bucharest, Romania and at the New Zealand Drama School.
Helen Q. Huang (Costume Designer) is the Resident Costume Designer at The Studio Theatre where she has collaborated with Joy for more than 40 productions. At Studio, she has designed costumes for productions including Moonlight, Rock’n’ Roll, The Seafarer, The Pillowman, Far Away, The Life of Galileo (Set/Costumes), Waiting for Godot and Indian Ink, for which she received the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Costume Design. Ms. Huang’s designs have been seen at theatres around the country including The Guthrie Theater, The Children’s Theatre Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Syracuse Stage, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Philadelphia Theatre Company, The Arden Theatre Company, Disney Creative Entertainment, Arizona Theatre Company, the Utah Shakespearean Festival and Boston Lyric Opera. In Washington Ms. Huang has also designed for Arena Stage, The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Olney Theatre Center, The Kennedy Center, Theater of the First Amendment and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where her costume design for Stunning has been nominated for the 2009 Helen Hayes Award. Ms. Huang’s design work of Monkey King (Ivey Award, Minneapolis) has been awarded with inclusion in the United States National Exhibit to the Prague Quadrennial 2007. Her renderings have been included in "Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance" 2009 exhibition at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Ms. Huang is also a professor in the MFA Costume Design Program at the Department of Theatre at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Gil Thompson (Sound Designer) is the Resident Sound Designer for The Studio Theatre, where he has designed more than 70 productions and received six Helen Hayes Award nominations. He received the 2000 Helen Hayes Award for The Studio Theatre’s Indian Ink. More recently, his work was heard at The Studio Theatre in Moonlight, Rock’n’Roll, Grey Gardens, The Road to Mecca, The History Boys, Shining City, The Pillowman, Souvenir and A Number. He was sound engineer for The Passion of the Crawford, and he also designed lights and sound for Crestfall, directed by Joy Zinoman, at The Studio 2ndStage. Other credits include Black Milk, Far Away, Privates on Parade and The Invention of Love at The Studio Theatre, Angel's Voices and Children of the Sun at The Kennedy Center and several productions at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. He has also worked at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Source Theatre, Horizons Theatre, Theater of the First Amendment and The Opera Camerata of Washington. He is Production Stage Manager for The Christmas Revels and Resident Lighting Designer and Technical Director for Sidwell Friends School.
Elizabeth van den Berg (Dialect Coach) has served as dialect coach for over 25 productions at The Studio Theatre, most recently for Moonlight, Shining City, A Number and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Theatre Arts Department at McDaniel College. Ms. van den Berg was recently seen as “Ugolino” in Dante at Synetic theatre, where she also has coached voice and dialects. She was named one of four top teaching artists nationally by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 2005, and was awarded a Kennedy Center Gold Medallion in 2006. She is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.
Robb Hunter (Fight Choreographer) has directed violence/movement for many productions at area theatres including Reasons to be Pretty at Studio Theatre; Stick Fly, Noises Off, The Heidi Chronicles and Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune with Arena Stage; The Alchemist at The Shakespeare Theatre Company; Bus Stop, The Millionairess, Oliver, Carousel, and 13 Rue de L’Amour at Olney Theatre Center; The Heavens are Hung in Black with Ford’s Theatre; A Little Night Music at Centerstage ; In the Heart of America at Rep Stage and Macbeth with Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Hunter is a Certified Teacher for the Society of American Fight Directors and member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society as well as AEA, SAG and AFTRA. He is currently Artist in Residence at American University and also teaches stage combat in the M.F.A. program at Catholic University and art history (The History of Arms and Armor) at George Mason University.
The Playwright: David Mamet
“I kind of stumbled upon a career as a playwright. I became a playwright because I was an actor and I started directing because I wasn’t a very good actor and I started writing because I was working with very young actors and there was nothing for them to do.”
—Mamet, New Theatre Quarterly, February 1988
Raconteur of underdogs, con artists and working stiffs, David Alan Mamet has spent his career investigating the sometimes desperate pursuit of the American dream. Emerging from the vibrant Chicago theatre scene of the 1970s and becoming one of our most unique and provocative voices, Mamet was born on November 30, 1947, in Chicago to Bernard and Lenore Mamet, the children of Jewish immigrants. He was raised on the city’s South Side amidst its Yiddish, Polish and Russian soundscape. His father rose from the poverty of the Depression, ultimately enjoying a middle class life working as a labor lawyer and representing three hundred unions including the Motion Picture Film Editors Union. In a 1959 court battle over the right to picket in Marin County, Indiana, the elder Mamet was found in contempt and fined $50,000, which he paid in $1 bills delivered in an armored truck surrounded by publicity. Mamet’s cultural poetics, the language of masculinity he navigates so successfully, derives in part from exposure to his father’s determined spirit and a home life featuring argument for argument’s sake.
As a teenager, Mamet worked as a busboy at Chicago’s Second City and backstage at Hull House Theatre while attending Francis Parker High School. His first play, a Second City-style review, Camel, was his senior thesis at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Literature. While at Goddard, Mamet completed a first draft of a play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, set in part in a singles bar, laced with obscene working-class language, and which after a 1974 run in Chicago transferred to Off Off and Off Broadway, won an Obie Award, and was named one of America’s best plays of 1976 by Time magazine.
American Buffalo, his next play, premiered in 1975 and fifteen months later opened on Broadway, winning another Obie and the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play of the Year and establishing the playwright’s national reputation. Also in 1977, his comedy A Life in the Theatre, a parody and celebration of the theatre, premiered in Chicago before moving to New York, and he married actress Lindsay Crouse with whom he has two children. Mamet and Crouse divorced in 1990 and since 1991 he has been married to actress Rebecca Pidgeon, with whom he also has two children.
Throughout Mamet’s long career, he has enjoyed success working outside of the theatre – whether in screenwriting, film directing, television, teaching, or writing in other genres. In 1981, his first film project, The Postman Always Rings Twice, premiered starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, just as he began a second screenplay, The Verdict, with director Sidney Lumet, for which he won an Academy Award nomination. His most-honored play, Glengarry Glen Ross premiered in 1983 at the National Theatre in London, where it won a host of awards and was dedicated to his friend Harold Pinter, who was helpful in bringing the play across the Atlantic. The following year Glengarry Glen Ross opened at the Goodman and transferred to New York where it ran for 378 performances, won the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics’ Award for Best American Play, and four Tony nominations including best play. Seemingly inspired by the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings, Mamet’s controversial two-character play Oleanna, about the power struggle between a young woman and her college professor accused of sexual harassment, premiered in 1992, and like so many of his playscripts was made into a film.
Playwright, poet, essayist, television producer, adapter of Chekhov and novelist, David Mamet is known for sparse, stylized storytelling, natural yet painstakingly composed dialogue and a volatile exploration of masculinity in a capitalist system which allows and often encourages unscrupulous methods.
-By Bob Bartlett
Inside Don's Resale Shop
The Props of American Buffalo
For The Studio Theatre’s current production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, Don’s Resale Shop, a rundown junk store in 1975 Chicago, has currently taken over the Milton Theatre. Audience members will see in Russell Metheny’s brilliant set design, the shelves and display cases teeming with rusty junk, discarded collectibles and broken down house-wares. What audiences may not notice, however, is the stunning detail and significance to The Studio Theatre’s history of the production’s many, many props, all assembled by The Studio Theatre’s talented props master, Deborah Thomas. The immense quantity of “junk” for the Resale Shop came from collectors and manufacturers throughout the United States, as well as from The Studio Theatre’s own sizable collection of theatre props.
It’s All in the Details
In American Buffalo, Donny and Teach discuss a number of items in Donny’s shop. Donny piques Teach’s interest with collectibles from the 1933 Chicago’s World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress.” One item they pull out of the shop’s glass case is a blue and silver compact with an image of the fair drawn onto it. This compact is an actual collectible from the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair.
While Donny and Teach specifically reference the compact, other items in the case remain nestled in its shelves, where they are never seen in any detail by audiences. Like the compact, these items are historically-authentic artifacts.
A Collectible Key
A Crumb “Sweeper” and Pan
Hidden Studio Theatre History
Besides the props historical accuracy in American Buffalo, many of the items found within the set hold a special significance in relation to The Studio theatre history. Thomas mined the Theatre’s storage, filling the shelves of the junkshop with numerous props used in past productions.
One example is a stool that first appeared in Deborah Booth’s set design for Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. Since then, the stool has made frquent cameos in Studio Theatre productions including this season’s Moonlight by Harold Pinter.
As American Buffalo marks director Joy Zinoman’s final production as Founding Artistic Director, the artifacts within Don’s Resale Shop wink at her storied tenure and The Studio Theatre’s history.
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1947 Born on November 30 in Chicago
1947 – 1965 Raised on Chicago’s South Side
1968 Studies acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Theatre in New York City
1969 Graduates from Goddard College in Vermont
1970 - 1971 Teaches drama at Marlboro College, Vermont
1975 American Buffalo premieres at the Goodman Theatre, Stage Two in Chicago
Sexual Perversity in Chicago wins a Joseph Jefferson Award
1976 Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Duck Variations move to Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City
1976 – 1977 Appointed as a teaching fellow at Yale School of Drama
1977 American Buffalo is staged on Broadway
A Life in the Theatre premieres in Chicago and transfers to New York City
Marries actress Lindsay Crouse
1978 Named Associate Artistic Director and Playwright-in-Residence at Goodman Theatre
1981 His first film project, The Postman Always Rings Twice, premieres starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange
1982 Nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of The Verdict
Wins the Obie Award for Edmund
1984 Glengarry Glen Ross wins the Pulitzer Prize and four Tony nominations including best play
1988 Adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya staged at the American Repertory Theatre
1990 The Hero Pony, a collection of poems, is published by Grove Press
1991 Writes and directs Homicide
Marries actress Rebecca Pidgeon
1992 Oleanna premiers at American Repertory Theatre
1994 Writes and directs film version of Oleanna
1997 Nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award for his writing on Wag the Dog
1999 Boston Marriage, directed by the playwright, premiers at American Repertory Theatre
2006 Creates The Unit for CBS television
The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews is published by Schocken
2008 Writes and directs the film Redbelt
November opens at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
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American Director: In Conversation With Joy Zinoman
“One of the actors came in here to have his picture taken and he said, ‘So I tell my friends in L.A. that I’m finally getting to do American Buffalo and what do you think- it’s directed by a broad!” – Joy Zinoman
Recently The Studio Theatre’s Dramaturg sat down with Founding Artistic Director Joy Zinoman to discuss her upcoming production of American Buffalo.
Sarah Wallace: Why did you choose to direct American Buffalo as your final production as Founding Artistic Director of the Studio Theatre?
Joy Zinoman: Well, there was some expectation that I would do something more autumnal, like The Cherry Orchard but I wanted to defy expectations. So I chose something that went back to my roots, a play set in Chicago, written in 1975, the year The Studio Theatre was founded, and something particularly focusing on strong, gritty, intense, violent acting that works so very well in intimate theatres.
SW: What is it about David Mamet that appeals to you as a director?
JZ: I think it’s about what’s unsaid, rather than what is said…what is left to the actors to create: the subtext between the lines, the brilliant silences, the motivations that result in the lines and action, the freedom that it gives the actor inside. Although Mamet says he just wants the actors to say the lines and have an objective, the plays are really about lost souls revealed underneath the aggressive, macho behavior.
SW: You’ve described American Buffalo as a masculine, strong play that needs a delicate hand. Can you explain that?
JZ: Character types and vernacular poetry are hard not to mock, not to overdo. So conversely this strongest and most masculine of plays needs, in 2010, a light, sure hand.
SW: Otherwise, these richly-drawn characters become in danger of turning into caricatures.
JZ: Right, and especially since so many people know the Mamet oeuvre.
SW: With this production you worked with all four of the resident designers. How has your working relationship evolved with them over the years?
JZ: Working with all the resident designers on this production is an unbelievable joy and pleasure; it is very meaningful and emotional for us all. I think over the years we’ve developed a vocabulary that doesn’t need words. We’ve developed a united visual, oral, tactile vision- an understanding of the relationship of costumes, scenery, lighting and sound to performance, in which they serve the performance, rather than trying to dominate it, and yet each designer is respected for the highest level of artistic craftsmanship.
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