True Grit: David Mamet's American Buffalo

The setup: American Buffalo is an early David Mamet play, so you know that it's going to feature tough talk from unsavory, pathetic people. Men, to be precise.

This 1976 play is set in a basement junk shop of an unspecified city. Don (Steve Irish), the proprietor, is a low-key, shadowy hustler with an outsized sense of dignity. After a wealthy customer buys a rare Buffalo nickel from him, Don doesn't celebrate the nice markup he got on the coin. Instead, he's offended by the customer's lordliness, and intends to break into said customer's house to burgle what Don assumes is a pricey rare coin collection. Much of the first act revolves around seasoned criminal Teach trying to persuade the fatherly but slightly slow Don to let him do the job instead of the baby-faced Bobby. The second half revolves around an unseen member of the team, Fletcher, who keeps Don and Teach waiting long after the job is supposed to have begun. Where is Fletcher? Has he betrayed them? Has baby-faced Bobby betrayed them, for that matter, out of revenge because they cut him out of the action?

The execution: Mamet shows his chops here; tension mounts as nothing happens. And he's got a very strong cast here to make that tension mount. Irish doesn't make a strong impression at first, but that's because his Don is something of a slowly awakening bear. As Teach, Drake Simpson enters with a burst of energy and believability. And you just know that Matt Hune, as sweet young Bobby, is simply going to break your heart.

The verdict: The frustrations hard-wired into these small-time losers' lives mount until they explode. And the explosion, with Don and Teach going at each other, is convincing and scary. That goes for this entire production by the Landing Theater Company, subtly but powerfully staged by director Kevin Holden, and convincingly designed by Frank Vela. Through August 28. O'Kane Theater, University of Houston-Downtown, 1 Main, 713-487-5634.

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