Fair warning: A four-letter expletive beginning with the letter F will be said quite a lot in “American Buffalo.”
But don’t write off this show because of that. Swear words have a purpose in David Mamet’s 1975 play.
The play, opening Jan. 18 at the Red Curtain Arts Center in Marysville, is about the dog-eat-dog world of small-time crime.
“American Buffalo,” which was adapted into a 1996 film starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson, is meant to be a twist on the American dream.
“People who live outside the legal realm and run afoul with the law are more apt to have a street-language way of speaking,” said William Cole, the Red Curtain production’s director.
In the underbelly of Chicago society in the mid-1970s, three crooks hatch a plan to steal a man’s rare buffalo head nickel. But it becomes a comedy of errors when their get-rich-quick scheme falls apart because of incompetence, and later turns violent when one of the criminals turns on another.
The story takes place in a junk shop. Donny, who owns the second-hand store, has sold a buffalo nickel to a customer for $90, but is now convinced it was worth five times more. He enlists the help of his gofer, Bobby, to keep tabs on the customer’s house and look for an opportunity to steal it back.
Donny’s poker buddy, “Teach,” learns about the plan and suggests he take Bobby’s place, as he’s the more experienced crook. Teach refuses any help and insists he can pull off the robbery on his own.
But things turn sour when Bobby returns with a buffalo nickel, leading Donny and Teach to believe he has gone through with the robbery and plans to rip them off.
“The play is a lot about loyalty,” Cole said. “There’s a lot of lies, truths and, for an audience, you have to untangle the web. It’s compelling theater.”
The cast features Scott Randall as the oafish junk shop owner Donny; Trey McGee as Bobby, a young junkie under Donny’s wing; and Michael McFadden as the violently paranoid braggart “Teach.”
Cole said each character has his own reasons for seeing the buffalo nickel as their ticket out.
Donny is looking to regain his own sense of self-worth after feeling like he’s been conned out of money. Teach is in financial distress and desperate for cash.
Bobby is the only one not interested in the prize coin. His reason for helping? He wants to gain acceptance and appreciation from Donny, who he sees as his mentor.
But whatever these three crooks do, they’ll always be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, Cole said.
“I see the play as taking place in a little corner of Purgatory,” Cole said. “I’ve designed the set so you descend down into the shop. You’re sitting in Purgatory, watching these people struggle to find redemption.”
Mamet’s trick to writing lifelike scripts, such as this one for “American Buffalo,” was to sit in public places and absorb the conversations happening around him.
“Mamet is famous for being a human tape recorder and listening carefully to the way people talked, and taking their vernacular, and using it to express his ideas,” said Cole, a longtime Mamet fan.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, email@example.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
If you go
Red Curtain’s “American Buffalo” is staged Jan. 18 through Feb. 3 at the Red Curtain Arts Center, 9315 State Ave., Suite J, Marysville. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students, seniors and military. Call 360-322-7402. More at www.redcurtainfoundation.org.