American Buffalo at Palm Beach Dramaworks Features Finely Tuned Actors Fighting With Conclusions

American Buffalo exists in a world of never-hads. The grief of its three characters — half-bright guys spending most of the late '70s doing not very much, hanging out in the cluttered front room of a junk shop — is for things that might have been and weren't. Donny (Dennis Creaghan) is an apparently friendly old sage who, rather than book learning, has what used to be called "horse sense." Bobby (Matthew Mueller) is his helper: a 17-year-old, on-again-off-again heroin addict who is, at this moment, doing recon for a heist Donny has planned.

It's not much of a heist, or doesn't look to be. Until last week, Donny had a buffalo nickel sitting on his counter, unnoticed. A well-dressed fellow came in to the store, looked around, and laid out $90 for it. Donny assumes he's been cheated. So Donny's had Bobby following the guy around for the past week, waiting for him to leave town so the pair can break into his house and loot his coin collection.

Enter Teacher (John Leonard Thompson), who points out that Bobby is too flaky to handle something as delicate as this and that he, not Bobby, is the one who should go in. There is some merit to this: Bobby, sweetheart though he seems, cannot quite pull together a complete sentence. It's clear from the way they talk about it that none of the men has engaged in this kind of petty criminality before, or at least not often, and their decision to do so raises the question: Why? The answer is that they are sick of being losers. Director William Hayes has his actors full of pumped-up bravado, paying constant tribute to their homemade ethos. You've gotta have "the ability to arrive at your own fucking conclusions!" screams Teach, and that about sums it up. Each of the older men believes himself to be the lone sensible person in a world full of fools.

But Hayes' actors never allow their characters to seem too sure of themselves: Deep down, theya know that they are the fools, or at least somebody's fools, and they'll be damned if they'll be one anothers'. The actors are finely tuned instruments — there is not a weak link between them, and together they capture wounded pride, bewilderment, and pathological braggadocio as well as it can be captured on a stage. By the end of the second act, Hayes has cranked them into a symphony of suspicion and sorrow that is as lovely as it is sad.

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Brandon K. Thorp