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Review: American Buffalo

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Taylor Kasch, Eric Mello and Brian Robert Harris  American Buffalo  Santa Paula Theater Center Photo Credit: Brian Sterham
The Santa Paula Theater Center and company has launched the second play in an excellent season of tough, great theatre, with their current production of David Mamet’s legendary play, American Buffalo.

This is a play that has made actors and directors famous ever since it first launched. Nowadays productions have the added weight of having to follow Dustin Hoffman’s film version as well. Those are tough acts to follow. It is also a difficult script to learn and perform: it has a rhythm that has to be maintained and requires impeccable timing. But all this just adds to its power. Clearly one of the greatest plays ever written in English, it is a tough, wonderful script, loaded with the kind of psychological tension and power that sweeps audiences along for a night of dark drama that swoops by all too fast. It always feels like a much shorter play than it actually is.
The current SPTC production had an unfortunate start as one of the three actors in the original cast had to be replaced at the last minute, meaning that Brian Robert Harris had a very short week to prepare his Don Dubrow for opening night. This means opening night and the first weekend were little more than a public dress rehearsal. But even that made it clear that this a tight ensemble, as one would expect from what appears to be a Flying H reunion production, and more than well-worth seeing. This is only going to get better as the play’s run progresses; but don’t wait till the end of the run, you may want to see this play more than once. It’s more than worth it.
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 Eric Mello and Brian Robert Harris  American Buffalo by David Mamet Santa Paula Theater Center
Photo Credit: Brian Sterham Photography
 It is worth seeing just to see Taylor Kasch, playing the famous lead, Walter “Teach” Cole, and Harris work together and off of one another. Both are extremely intelligent actors who have a director’s eye for seeing the larger contexts and deeper layers within a script. In the 805 both have proven themselves time and again: Taylor was the founding director of Flying H Theatre; Harris was, among other things, the director of a fine production of Zero Hour [definitely an actor’s play and act of deep love of theatre] at the Elite not long ago.
Rounding out Buffalo’s now-legendary trio of parts is Erik Mello as Bob. This part demands some strong physical acting during the climax of the play and Mello is definitely the man for that in the 805. So we get a trio of extremely well-cast parts playing one of America’s greatest plays.
In a way it is too bad--and would have been natural--that Harris was not playing Dubrow to begin with. He is a great fit for the part. Harris has a certain ability to move from casual indifference to explosive defensiveness with an ease that is totally in keeping with Dubrow’s chimerical character and the ambiguities necessary for providing the foreboding tension in the Mamet script.
Harris and Kasch have great chemistry and work well off of each other. The passages between Harris and Mello are similarly strong. In a sense, Harris pulls the entire play together.
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Taylor Kasch and Brian Robert Harris  American Buffalo by David Mamet Santa Paula Theater Center
Photo Credit: Brian Sterham 
As for Teach, Teach is the part of a lifetime with the kind of solid psychological bite that Kasch thrives on. Kasch’s Teach is a chameleon full of grit, which in my mind is much more in keeping with Mamet’s writing. Hoffman played him more to entertain. Kasch refuses to take the easy way out, his Teach is not here to entertain, he’s here to kick ass and do just what his part’s name says: teach. Taylor’s Teach is multi-dimensional, savage, shifting in and out of lightning fast mood swings punctuated by the legendary Mamet verbal fireworks. He is relentless, fearless, and makes the internal logic of Mamet’s riddle of a play work to a dime … or should one say, nickel?
When I heard that Taylor Kasch was involved, I thought, ah, that’s great, for Kasch likes to get involved with other aspects of a production, like the sets, and sound. But these are not Kasch’s. As for sound, I wanted to hear the clong of that frying pan against bone, so we can feel it in our gut. As for the set, the American Buffalo set is the kind of set that Kasch knocks out of the park. This set is definitely not a Taylor Kasch set. It has its moments, but the density of meaning and history and sense of detail of design--and most importantly, the rawness-- that we came to expect at the Flying H is just not there. There’s just not enough junk in this junk shop. Don’t get me wrong, the set still works up to a point, and in terms of the this production it is the power of the acting, the directing, and Mamet’s brilliant writing that carry all before them for an excellent evening of dramatic theatre.
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American Buffalo by David Mamet
Directed by Kathleen Bosworth
Produced by Leslie Nichols
Staring Taylor Kasch, Eric Mello, and Brian Robert Harris
Gary Richardson, lights, Mike Carnahan, set, Kathleen Bosworth, sound, Barbara Pedziwiatr, costumes, Gail Heck, props
at the Santa Paula Theater Center through May 20  2018
for tickets and information go to www.santapaulatheatercenter.org
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