Vol. 1 No. 2 2007


Sanford and Son Go to the Dark Side

Review by James Petcoff

American Buffalo

By David Mamet
Directed by Evan Bergman
September 19 – October 14
Julie Harris Stage at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre
Wellfleet, Massachusetts


Teach: Reg E Cathey
Donny: Paul Butler
Bobby: Hubert Point-Du-Jour

photo of play

American Buffalo is a play as simple and as complex as its name. The coin of the title represents two aspects of America marginalized by the white man’s greed masked behind the self-righteous veneer of manifest destiny and laissez-faire capitalism. The face of the coin (a old nickel) depicts a Native American, a symbol of a disenfranchised indigenous culture. The obverse of the coin is the likeness of an American Buffalo – stripped quite literally for its hide -- by greedy hunters. Two sides of the same coin as it were; extermination is not a crime but rather good business justified by increased profit margin.

Sag Harbor’s Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theatre (WHAT) production of David Mamet’s, “American Buffalo” is unique in that the three characters are played by African-American actors. This ups the ante on irony since the larcenous business practices Donny and Teach espouse and try to pass down to Bobby were created and legitimized by the culture that justified enslavement for three-hundred years.

Mamet’s dialogue, stripped to the wire, relies heavily on rhythm, repetition and the movement of the actors as well, as voice inflection. In the hands of these skillful actors, one is reminded of a bebop trio feeding off each other’s energy, trading off riffs, while remaining sensitive to the nuances of each musician’s contribution. So it was on Saturday night.

The stage set, created by Anita Fuchs, evokes the junk-filled room of the TV show, Sanford and Son. I flashed on how Red Foxx and his son dealt comically with the very same ethical and moral issues that Donny, Teach and Bobby explore in a dark gone darker world. Mamet’s unholy trinity will take Sanford and Son into the abyss.

Paul Butler as Donny gives a wrenching performance of a man torn between loyalty and friendship for his young protégé, Bobby and the “business” of pulling off the heist of the man that he feels ripped him off by underpaying for the American Buffalo nickel. He will vacillate convincingly between defending Bobby against Teach and almost falling for the absurd pontific justifications of the latter on how the heist can only be pulled off successfully if he, Teach, is the one to “go in.”

Reg E. Cathey gives a manic-yet-controlled performance as Teach; jive-ass huckster, absurdist, low-rent philosopher. Cathey’s masterful comedic timing transmits Teach’s transparency to both Donny and the audience as the mean, petty grafter that is Teach.

As Donny says at the beginning of the play, “Action talks and bullshit walks.”

Hubert Point-Du Jour as Bobby begins the play as a blank slate: an ex-junkie, a student of Professor Donny at the school of hard knocks and dirty socks. There is an implied genuine father/ son affection between them that is tested and almost shattered by the grasping, self-absorbed Teach’s effort to marginalize Bobby in Donny’s eyes. Speaking of eyes, those of actor Point-Du -Jour are a compelling visual force as they take in the vacuum that is Teach and react to his near betrayal by Donny.

Since 1985, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater has consistently pushed the envelope by presenting thought-provoking productions that challenge the audience, as well as the actors.

All live theatre is a work in progress, and on the strength of what I witnessed, I returned to the Julie Harris Stage on the closing weekend of American Buffalo to see how Donny, Teach and Bobby play out and expand upon their savage petty world of greed, corruption and larceny. A world all too familiar as we witness the stupidity of greed among today’s leaders and politicians all over the world.

I found that all three actors had honed their characters to a more disciplined restraint that added to the tension and the release there of during the play’s violent conclusion. Julie Harris was in the audience the night I went back, and she applauded enthusiastically, as did the rest of us at the conclusion of the performance.

James Petcoff lives on Cape Cod. He is the director of a mental health rehabilitation program by day and a writer and a musician by night. He is the pet human of a 20-ear-old cat named Gomez.

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