(Queensland Theatre Company)


By David Mamet

Bille Brown Studio, Merivale Street

Professional production

If it weren’t so funny, you’d have to weep. These small-time Chicago losers, planning a heist that never gets off the ground, aren’t very far removed from The Three Stooges, except that here there’s a grim undertone to their feckless plot.

The American Buffalo of the title is a rare US coin, which has been lying unnoticed in a pile of worthless items in Don’s junk shop. And what a junk shop it is! This is a set that outshines (make that out-grunges) even the famous clutter of the share-house in He Died with a Falafel…. It’s designer Bruce McKinven’s masterpiece, but all I could think of was the poor stage manager and crew, whose job it is to make sure all those piles of trash, decaying furniture, stuffed tigers and Matchbox cars are in their right places so that the actors can get their hands on the appropriate piece of pig-sticking equipment without getting lost in the chaos. And when things literally fall apart at the end of the play (you don’t think I’m going to give away the plot, do you?), my heart went out to Anita King and Jodie Roche, of that unsung, nameless, but invaluable tribe of back-stagers, who have to put it all together again six times a week. Even if you don’t like David Mamet’s language, you have to see this play for the set alone. It’s a work of genius.

Don owns the shop, and seems to be the brains (I use the term loosely) behind the enterprise. Russell Kiefel plays him rough-as-guts but heart-of-gold, too generous in his relationships to be a proper crim. At first I was a little disappointed in his physical and emotional restraint, his too-ready acceptance of failure and disappointment, but realised when Teach, the manic wannabe crim who has obviously left home without his Prozac, comes in like a crazed gorilla, that Kiefel needs to hold back to be not a foil but a complement to Hayden Spencer, who revels in this role as if he were born to it.

Spencer here is at his fidgety, illogical, surreal best, like a volcano waiting to go off, and desperate to get this heist going. The plan is to raid the house of the man who bought the coin from Don earlier in the day for $95, so they can get it back and sell it for a fortune. There’s a universal protest underlying this project, that the rich and the canny always manage to out-smart the small and powerless, so Don and Teach’s revenge plan is based on resentment of the way the world works. It’s a futile gesture, and really quite unnecessary, for Don (a) didn’t realise that he had such a valuable coin among the box of pennies and dimes and (b) wouldn’t have a clue how much it was really worth anyway.

And then there’s the strange younger man Bobby, who is some kind of protégé of Don’s, but is even more clueless than the others. His own scam, to get back at all of them, goes terribly wrong, and he ends up with a hospitalising crack on the ear when Teach finally loses it, and without the easy money he thought would come his way.

The twists of the plot don’t really matter, any more than the mind-numbing irrationality of their argument, which leave the audience bewildered – although it had me helpless with laughter and disbelief, for had he been born into another social class, Teach would have made a brilliant defence lawyer, baffling his hearers with logic so irrefutable that they wouldn’t have time to realise that it made no sense.

It’s a superb play, a simple fable of natural injustice taken by David Mamet into realms of glory. The pace, once the actors got over their first-night hesitancy, was a cracker, rushing along physically and verbally so fast that the audience never had time to get bored or wonder what was happening, because the Alice in Wonderland logic makes its own internal sense. The language, of course, you have to be prepared for, because these are uneducated people who communicate only in profanity, and through their inarticulateness create a world which only they can inhabit.

If you’re looking for an underlying theme, I suppose it has to be about male communication, friendship and loyalty, and what can happen when any of those break down and the participants have nothing to fall back on. That’s where Russell Keel’s stolid unemotional presence is essential, to provide a firm base for the other two’s crazed behaviour, and Kiefel shows his own integrity as an actor by holding back from the temptation to upstage Hayden Spencer. And Anthony Standish, in his QTC debut performance as the sad street kid Bobby, is a knock-out. I hope we see a lot more of him in the future.

A truly wonderful play, intelligently directed, magnificently visualised, and impeccably acted. Colonel Blimp won’t like it, but that’s his loss. It’s my choice for the best production of the year so far.

Directed by Jon Halpin

Designed by Bruce McKinven

Lighting by Jason Organ

Playing until 17 June 2006: Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday at 1pm, Saturday at 2pm

Duration : 2 hours, including a 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 24th May 2006)