'American Buffalo': A Slice of Chicago Style

Spring 2010 Performing Arts Preview

Courtesy Studio Theatre

For Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre’s upcoming production of “American Buffalo” has elements of both a homecoming and a leave-taking.

David Mamet’s 1975 play has its roots in Chicago (it premiered at the city’s Goodman Theatre), and for Chicago-born Zinoman, the work holds a special resonance. “I’ve always loved the play,” she says, noting that it appeared “at a seminal time for me”— the period when Studio Theatre was just beginning.

Now, as Zinoman prepares to step down from her role as the theater’s artistic director, it will be the final production she’ll direct.

Zinoman programmed “American Buffalo” as part of this season’s trio of “Money Plays” at Studio, joining “Adding Machine: The Musical” and “The Solid Gold Cadillac” as works that explore themes of commerce and capitalism. For Zinoman, “American Buffalo” is “the best play ever written about American business.” More than three decades after its debut, the work has also taken on new levels of meaning. “Now it is a play about fathers and sons, loyalty and friendship. It reminds me of a certain Chicago style. It’s gritty, real, and unpretentious.”

The plot of “American Buffalo” centers on a crime that doesn’t happen, the heist of a supposedly valuable buffalo-head nickel. As Don, the owner of a secondhand shop and his young protégé, Bobby, spin out their plans to recover the coin from a customer who bought it, they’re joined by the volatile Teach, who offers to pull off the job himself. The scheme devolves into betrayal and violence, with shifting loyalties and suspicion undermining the trio’s relationships. Dark, often profane, yet deeply funny, “American Buffalo” has entered the canon of classic plays of the last century.

It’s also a work that offers rich roles, and Zinoman has put together “three amazing actors” to bring them to life. “I’m incredibly excited to work with Ed Gero,” says Zinoman of the well-respected local actor who plays Don. Bobby will be played by Jimmy Davis, who Zinoman had seen in a role light years away from the typical Mamet man: Juliet in the Shakespeare Theatre’s all-male production of “Romeo and Juliet.” At his audition, Zinoman “found his originality intriguing,” and he was selected for the part.

Teach is “one of the great American roles,” says Zinoman, and she’s landed an actor who, according to his mentors, “was born to play this part.” “I almost fell down dead” when viewing the video submitted by actor Peter Allas, she recalls. A Chicago-born son of immigrants, she describes him as “rehearsing his whole life” for Teach. It didn’t hurt that in his video the actor who created the role of Don in the play’s first production read opposite him. A Washington audition clinched the part for Allas, and it’s clear that Zinoman is looking forward to the sparks the three actors will create.

More than three decades after “American Buffalo” burst onto the scene, the play’s themes have deepened and new contours have emerged — just as the nation’s economic roller coaster rides during the same period have shifted how we look at money and business. “I think it’s a real, human story about petty criminals and their schemes to make money and the greed that drives and divides,” says Zinoman. “It’s also about honor, morality, and friendship.” It’s a play that explores “how good people can get to violent, greedy, and life-destroying places in the name of business.”

She hopes audiences “will come with an open mind” and see “American Buffalo” “freshly, as a new play.” “I hope they’ll come to laugh,” she says, since much of Mamet’s work in the play is funny. “And the language is just delicious.”

For all satisfaction Zinoman finds in this directing assignment, “American Buffalo” is also a particularly emotional experience. At the play’s first production meeting, she recalls, the director and her long-time design and technical team “found ourselves weeping” with the realization that this would be the very last time they’d work on a show together in the same way. (Zinoman steps down as artistic director on Sept. 1 this year.) “Everyone is highly aware of the significance [of the production] for us, and we appreciate being able to do it together.”

So what’s next for Joy Zinoman after the Studio Theatre? “The first next” is a four-month European sojourn in Italy and France, a chance to “create a real breathing space between this great, unbelievable life at Studio Theatre and what is next.”

Teaching at the theatre’s conservatory will still be part of Zinoman’s life, and she’s considering offers from other quarters as well. “What’s great,” she concludes, “is a sense of jumping off a cliff.” It’s certain that wherever Joy Zinoman lands after that leap, it will be an interesting place to be.

“American Buffalo” plays at Studio Theatre May 5 through June 13. For more information, go to www.studiotheatre.org.

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