Equal parts mystery, comedy and bromance, “American Buffalo” closes Thunder River Theatre’s 19th season in Carbondale.
The early David Mamet drama, written in 1975, had a Broadway run in 1977 and was adapted into a film in 1996 with Dustin Hoffman, Sean Nelson and Dennis Franz.
It’s set in a Chicago junk shop, where three small-time hustlers — Donny (Owen O’Farrell), Teach (Thunder River executive artistic director Lon Winston) and Bobby (Nick Garay) — conspire to steal a coin collection.
As the play begins, Donny has sold a buffalo nickel, which he thought was worthless, for $90. He soon suspects it’s worth far more and begins plotting to get it back. With this premise, the play delves into themes ranging from the American dream to manhood, greed, loyalty and friendship.
Its characters are doomed dreamers — desperate and inarticulate losers in the rat race. Yet their bond is familial, notes the local production’s director, Valerie Haugen.
“These men are very much alone, but they’ve made this family,” she says. “It’s a bit like a mom, a dad and their son — only it’s two dads and a heroin-addict son.”
Thunder River has given serious drama a permanent home in Carbondale, though they produce comedies, too. Recent productions have included an unexpurgated version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” It’s heavy stuff, and it’s difficult stuff to do well. But the company — led by executive directors Haugen and Winston — reliably pulls it off.
This is Thunder River’s first time staging a work by David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning master playwright behind modern classics like “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow.”
His dialogue is legendary — and legendarily difficult to nail for actors — for its precise off-kilter usage, mid-sentence tense changes and over-seasoning of profanity.
“It looks like it’s without order, but it is very ordered,” Haugen says. “He gives it this rhythm that’s really incredible.”
Winston, a four-decade stage veteran, says getting it right ain’t easy.
“In 40 years, it’s probably the most difficult play I’ve ever had to memorize,” he says.
Fellow cast members O’Farrell and Garay both did impressive work in “Long Day’s Journey” as James and Edward Tyrone, respectively. Aspenites will recognize Garay as Romeo from last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Much of Mamet’s precise mix of vulgarity and vernacular phrasing is also written in Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Mamet fashions the characters’ rough linguistic fumblings and four-letter word combinations into a stylized street verse that’s unlike most anything else in theater. Haugen calls it “the poetry of the profane.”
The harsh language is just over-the-top enough to feed the humor of the play. Its overload of four-letter words, and combinations thereof, may shock the audience at first, Haugen notes, but as it crosses the line it gets funny.
“It’s not funny until you hear it the 20th time,” Haugen says of Mamet’s exhaustive use of the “c-word.”
Also like the bard’s work, notes Haugen, Mamet’s play doesn’t include specific stage direction, allowing the dialogue to force the action. In rehearsal, Haugen and her cast have been finding those stage movements through Mamet’s dialogue.
“It’s all there to be discovered in the text,” Haugen says. “It’s been an organic process.”