Photo by Noel Bass
Photo by Noel Bass
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American Buffalo


Reviewed by Paul Birchall

Deaf West Theatre at Cal State, LA

Through March 8




David Mamet’s ferociously grifty drama  of small-time thugs  gets a strikingly evocative staging in director Stephen Rothman’s innovative, adrenaline-driven production. 


Presented as a co-production between Deaf-West and Cal State Los Angeles at the State Theater on the CSULA campus, the show is performed using a mix of American Sign Language, spoken word, narrative description broadcast over headsets, and supertitles – a set of modalities to allow deaf and hearing audiences to enjoy the piece.  It is safe to say that Mamet’s seamy drama has not been seen like this before – and, frankly, the production is a triumph of pure emotion, wit, and dark intelligence. 


When performed on stage, ASL becomes much more than a mere device to translate dialogue – it evolves into a semaphore-like device to transmit raw emotion, thus giving Mamet’s double-crosses and outbursts an almost Kabuki-like feel.  And, if you have never seen anyone sign lines such as “that cocksucker should be horse whipped with his own horse whip!” – well, that possesses a pleasure all its own. 


In a seedy junkyard pawn shop (gorgeously realized in Ken George’s near operatic set, which comes complete with piles of rubbish and spooky dark-lit junky corners), thug Donny (Paul Raci) plots a heist with his young apprentice Bobby (M. Ryan Pest).  They’re going to steal a collection of possibly valuable coins from the home of a former shop customer – even though they are not sure he’s out of town, or even if the coins are stored in the guy’s apartment.  It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but even so, things spin even further out of control when Donny’s buddy Teach (Troy Kotsur) discovers that a scam is in the works.


When Bobby and Donny talk to each other, they interact as people who can hear – and their dialogue appears as supertitles on a pair of screens displayed above the junk shop set.  When the hearing-impaired character Teach arrives, the characters shift into ASL, which is translated to the hearing audience members by voiced actors via headsets.  The result is a fascinatingly complex and morally ambiguous experience — when Donny and Bobby use their voices when they don’t want Teach to hear them, and Teach signs to Donny when he  wants to cut Bobby out of the loop.  


It must certainly be a challenge to translate Mamet’s dialogue — and more particularly, the  playwright’s idiosyncratic subtext, engendered by pauses, interrupted exchanges, and sarcasm.  However, Rothman’s taut and edgy staging somehow conveys all the original text’s power plays and emotionally ambiguous nuances.  (We are told in the program notes that the show’s ASL translators actually utilized 1970s slang — including some archaic terms for certain women’s orifices.)


It’s hard to imagine a more engagingly rendered lowlife than Kotsur’s creepy, twitchy Teach.  His character being hearing impaired underscores the idea that the needy thug is the quintessential “outsider,” and, as he tries to wheedle his way into the con, he comes across as someone who cannot possibly succeed.  Caparisoned in a sleazy filthy black leather jacket, all dangling arms and grimacing jaw, Kotsur plays Teach as a goon who gets in his own way, even when practicing the fine art of thuggery.  


Raci’s turn as the caper mastermind is almost equally subtle and terrifying.  Capable of one of those easy grins that don’t quite reach the dead eyes, Raci reminds the viewer of a leathery crocodile.  And, during one scene in which he’s arguing in ASL with Teach, we look up from his hands to see that his face is as cold and as heartless as a statue — a very dangerous, unnerving performance.  


Adroit vocal narration of the lines delivered in ASL is provided by James Foster (Donny) and Collin Bressie (Teach), but the truth is, in some sense, it’s almost unnecessary, so deliberate and accessible are the onstage turns of this ensemble in this harrowing, compelling drama.  


State Playhouse at Cal State Los Angeles, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles.  Thurs.- Sat., 7:30 pm.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 8.  (818) 762-2998,