l-r, Donny (Paul Vincent O'Connor*) and Teach (James Carpenter*) confront one another about their plans for a heist  in American Buffalo
Donny (Paul Vincent O’Connor) and Teach (James Carpenter) confront one another about their plans for a heist in American Buffalo at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley through July 20. Photo: David Allen

David Mamet’s searing 1975 masterpiece about a botched robbery by three Chicago low-lifes fizzled rather than sizzled through its opening night at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre. Not that the play isn’t worth seeing — it is. But this production of American Buffalo seems to lack drama and tension and is instead milked for laughs.

American Buffalo follows three small-time crooks for one day as they talk about robbing a neighbor whom they believe owns a valuable coin collection. One can’t describe their action as “planning a robbery” because they lack the brainpower and skill that actual planning requires.

Donny (first-rate Paul Vincent O’Connor) runs a junk store, which is the center of the play’s action. After he sells a buffalo nickel to a man from around the corner, he fears he has been cheated. He and Bobby (great work by Rafael Jordan), his young, drug-addicted protégée and gofer, plan to steal back the coin, as well as the valuable coin collection they fantasize they will find in the victim’s house. There is an almost tender parent/child relationship between Donny and Bobby that is at the heart of the drama.

Donny’s volatile poker buddy, Teach (veteran actor James Carpenter), slams into the store in a foul mood, ranting about how others in their poker group are ungrateful and worthless. Learning about the robbery, Teach wants to horn in. He slyly convinces Donny that Bobby is too young and inexperienced to handle the break-in, and that Teach should replace Bobby. Donny reluctantly agrees to replace Bobby with Teach, but wants another poker player, Fletcher (unseen), to join the team. But Teach objects and tries to turn Donny against Fletcher. As the appointed meet time for the break-in nears, Bobby returns unexpectedly. Teach’s greed, suspicion and anger overcome him and cause the bloody debacle that is the play’s ending.

What makes American Buffalo a great drama is Mamet’s ability to raise the crooks’ venal circumstances into an allegorical tale of loyalty and friendship tested by insinuation, lies, greed and fear. Peppering the parable with crude incomplete sentences in staccato speech patterns adds taut realism to the action.

American Buffalo is not supposed to be a funny play. In this production, however director Barbara Damashek allows the play’s humor to overpower its noir qualities. Part of the director’s problem is that the 1975 drama is a bit dated. For example, dressing James Carpenter’s Teach in a 1970s get-up makes him appear silly. Although an extremely talented actor, James Carpenter doesn’t exude the menace and smoldering anger in the first act that make his actions in Act Two seem consequential.

American Buffalo nevertheless delivers a lot of energy and interest, making it a worthwhile night at the theater.

American Buffalo runs through July 20, 2014. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...