In David Mamet's American Buffalo, a coin collector stumbles across a valuable buffalo nickel in a small Chicago junk shop and purchases it for only $90. Later coming to believe that the coin was worth far more than this and feeling he has been unfairly taken advantage of, Don, the shop owner, becomes determined to steal the coin back. He elicits help from Bobby, a young friend, and Teach, a paranoid and violent braggart. The three conspirators fancy themselves as businessmen pursuing the legitimate concerns of free enterprise. In reality, however, they are merely small time crooks, and all of their plotting amounts to nothing in the end. It is a futile, vulgar, verbal exercise that finally erupts in violence when their failure becomes apparent and the frustration becomes unbearable.
After choosing Bobby to carry out the actual robbery, Don and Teach later conspire to cut him out of the deal and split the money between themselves. Eventually, Bobby returns, not with the buffalo nickel, but with a buffalo nickel--one that he finally admits he simply purchased being unable to carry out the robbery. Don is embarrassed and angry, but Teach is furious and, suspecting BOBBY is somehow trying to con them, explodes in a vicious attack on the helpless boy which leaves him in need of medical attention. The would-be thieves have been exposed not only for their entrepreneurial greed but for their complete inadequacy to carry out even a simple robbery.
American Buffalo was first produced on November 23, 1975, by the Goodman Theatre Stage Two, Chicago, Illinois, under the direction of Gregory Mosher. The cast was as follows:
- BOBBY: William H. Macy
- TEACH: Bernard Erhard
- DONNY: J.J. Johnston
After a twelve-performance showcase at Stage Two, the play re-opened at Chicago's St. Nicholas Theatre Company, with Mike Nussbaum in the role of TEACH.
In February, 1976, American Buffalo was showcased at St. Clement's, New York, again under the direction of Gregory Mosher. The cast was as follows:
- BOBBY: J.T. Walsh
- TEACH: Mike Kellin
- DONNY: Michael Egan
The New York Broadway production opened on February 16, 1977, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, under the direction of Ulu Grosbard. The cast was as follows:
- BOBBY: John Savage
- TEACH: Robert Duvall
- DONNY: Kenneth McMillan
The original Broadway production was nominated for two Tony Awards and Four Drama Desk Awards. A Broadway revival opened at the Booth Theatre on October 27, 1983, and earned a 1984 Theatre World Award for J.J. Johnston, who played Donny.
The 1996 film version of American Buffalo featured the following cast:
- BOBBY: Sean Nelson
- TEACH: Dustin Hoffman
- DONNY: Dennis Franz
In American Buffalo, the characters express themselves in the debris of our language: words and sentences have become eroded.... If the play finally achieves eloquence it is through the inarticulate. No ideas or statements are ever completed, conversation is chiefly carried on in a series of muddled or explosive ejaculations. One often doubts whether the characters themselves know what they want to say. Hardly anything is fulfilled. There is something about the characters and their values as effaced as the American buffalo in the old coins. We perceive only their lineaments.
HAROLD CLURMAN, introduction, Nine Plays of the Modern Theater
David Mamet brings you to the edge of your seat with language. Not just the force of it, but the cunning deployment of everyday American speech patterns that cut corners and pure grammar to distill hard meaning and veiled threats from the frenzied banter of a trio of articulate burglars in a downtown junk shop. Hearing Pinter for the first time must have been something like this.
MICHAEL COVENEY, Financial Times, Jun. 29, 1978
The obscenities as well as the more homely exchanges compose a litany of the underworld, and Mamet has caught the tone precisely, knowing full well that the trio's words and actions are a form of prayer of the dispossessed.
DOUGLAS WATT, New York Daily News, Jun. 5, 1981
Like some bastard offspring of Oswald Spengler and Elaine May, American Buffalo popped out, full grown, as the American drama's funniest, most vicious attack on the ethos of Big Business and the price that it exacts upon the human soul.
GREGORY MOSHER, introduction, American Buffalo
American Buffalo is a play that is essentially concerned with language rather than deed, and Mamet advances the action almost entirely through that medium. Because of this concentration on the power of language rather than upon overt stage action, some critics have denounced the play as tedious and static.... Many of Mamet's plays have been criticized for their stasis or lack of plot, but they nonetheless remain powerfully dramatic.
ANNE DEAN, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action
The play's ostensible simplicity ... expands into a parodic version of the American dream, a social drama, and a metaphysical work of surprising complexity and genuine originality. With its echoes of another America, uncontaminated by entreprenurial greed, a product of utopian rhetoric rather than psychotic fear and aggression, American Buffalo offers a portrait of the Republic in terminal decay, its communal endeavor and individual resilience all but disappeared. The trust and unity invoked on its coinage have now devolved into paranoia, the security and hope it once offered into a frightening violence.
MATTHEW ROUDANÉ, The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet
These three failed crooks are the waste products of the American belief in free enterprise. But while Mamet shows them as victims, it is without patronage and with respect and even love for these little people who, as he somehow makes one feel, resemble the little person in all of us.
VICTORIA RADIN, London Observer, Aug. 5, 1984
In American Buffalo the quarrelsome solidarity of petty criminals is acted out in the mode of a most convincing psychological realism, thanks not least to a masterful deployment of authentically fragmented dialogue; but the author has proclaimed that he had in mind nothing less than a general indictment of American business ethics, and when read or seen in this light the play, right from its title, does give evidence of this.
HERBERT GRABES, New Essays on American Drama
By the time American Buffalo is over, it ... has pounded away at the American dream of success until it is left in soiled, hideous tatters.
FRANK RICH, New York Times, Jun. 5, 1981
American Buffalo is about an essential part of American consciousness, which is the ability to suspend an ethical sense and adopt in its stead a popular accepted mythology and use that to assuage your conscience like everyone else is doing.
DAVID MAMET, London Times, Jun. 19, 1978
Back to David Mamet