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Talkin’ shit: (l-r) Noth and Frangione in American Buffalo.

Obscenely Good
By Kathy Ceceri

American Buffalo

By David Mamet, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, through Aug. 13

David Mamet’s American Buffalo is part of the modern canon of theatrical classics, one I had not had the pleasure of seeing until this outstanding production at Berkshire Theatre Festival. With dialogue at once earthy and highly formal, and a cast of lowlifes unique to Mamet’s Chicago roots yet universal (a lady from the Bronx said she felt right at home with the cadences; I felt I was watching a conversation between my Jersey in-laws), the play was a groundbreaker when first performed in 1976. Today, although somewhat of a period piece—just watching the characters dialing and redialing the office phone took me back—it is as vibrant, as full of electricity, and yes, even charm, as it must have been when it was new.

Despite what one audience member at the July 25 Q&A called the “raw and threatening” language and actions of the characters, American Buffalo is as much comedy as drama. Once you get past the unending obscenities, Mamet has the timing and wit of the best writers of the light entertainment—Neil Simon with a baseball bat and gun. The story takes place in the junk shop owned by Don (a terrific rat’s nest of a set by Carl Sprague), which also serves as general hangout for a gang of ne’er-do-wells that includes the polyester-clad poseur Teach. Don also has an assistant, a quiet young black man named Bob, whom he has taken under his wing. The first half of Act I consists almost entirely of inane talk between the three on the nutritional value of breakfast and the card-playing abilities of the never-seen but equally-well-realized Ruthie, Grace, Fletch and Earl—“the same old shit,” as Teach says. The action, what there is of it, involves a break-in and a rare buffalo-head nickel found among the junk in Don’s shop.

The repartee between stage and screen veterans Jim Frangione as Don and Chris Noth (Law & Order, Sex and the City) as Teach is masterful in its banality: “According to you!” “I’m usually the person it’s according to when I’m talking.” As the third member of this tense triangle, Sean Nelson is more subdued, tentative. At 14, Nelson played Bob in the film version with Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz; 11 years later, he said last week, he’d found new meanings to the lines he thought he knew so well. Strangely, none of the actors credited director Anders Cato when describing how they worked with Mamet’s dialogue. (The playwright used italics, underlining and ellipses to show what words to emphasize, where to pause.) But every musician plays the same piece differently, and it’s the conductor who keeps it all together. So here’s props to Cato for making BTF’s American Buffalo a worthy addition to the long line of powerful renditions of this American standard.

Hitting the Glass Ceiling

Top Girls

By Caryl Churchill, directed by Jo Bonney

Williamstown Theatre Festival, July 30

In the program of Top Girls, dramaturge Diana Konopka asks director Jo Bonney whether a feminist play about opportunity and achievement, set in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, is still relevant. Certainly it’s no longer news that professional women unhappily spent decades training younger men who passed them by on the corporate ladder. But look beyond the women’s issues, and Top Girls is a play about what you’re allowed to do for a living—and what you have to do to get there. And that’s a question being asked now as much as it was in the 1980s.

At the center of this all-female play is Marlene (Jessica Hecht), a recruiter at a London employment agency who’s just been promoted to management. Though impeccably dressed, Marlene’s accent marks her as strictly lower-middle class, a combination that immediately makes us want to know more. And then Churchill throws us an even bigger curve, as we discover that joining Marlene for a celebratory dinner are figures from history and art: Isabella Bird (Becky Ann Baker), a Victorian world traveler; Lady Nijo (Reiko Aylesworth), a 13th-century Japanese courtesan who later also traveled as a Buddhist nun; Dull Gret (Laura Heisler), the subject of one of those hallucinogenic paintings of hell by Pieter Brueghel; Pope Joan (Ellen McLaughlin), who ruled from 853 to 855; and Chaucer’s Patient Griselda (Elizabeth Reaser), whose unbelievable forbearance is rewarded in the end. As this unlikely gathering orders their Waldorf salads and brandy, they clash over religious beliefs and try to top each other’s stories of triumph and suffering.

It’s a marvelous seriocomic ensemble piece—“In France,” says Pope Joan, “it rained giant grasshoppers, but I didn’t think it was my fault,” while Dull Gret bangs the table, grunting for “more bread!”—which Churchill then turns on its head in the second act. Here we see Marlene and her coworkers (Ayleworth and Reaser again) try to tailor their job seekers’ dreams to the realities of the market. And we meet two sad and scary teenagers, Angie (Heisler) and Kit (Brienin Bryant), whose prospects may be even dimmer than they imagine. In every case, for these women success is tempered with a big dose of sacrifice.

The language in Top Girls is overlapping and intertwined, made even more obscure by each character’s heavy dialect. But the characterizations themselves are so rich and intense—Lady Nijo’s kimono- flapping attempt to hold center stage, Pope Joan’s casual arrogance—that wading through a bit of awkward articulation is forgivable. And in contrast with the fantastical group in the first act, the naturalistic scenes in Act II, particularly those with Angie, Kit, Joyce and Marlene are so immediate they’re frightening. But all of Top Girls works as top-rate playwriting and acting. It’s a wise and well- considered choice for the 21st century.

—Kathy Ceceri

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