Al Pacino and Robert Duvall are among the performers who have played Teach, the deluded, out-of-control conman who spurs much of the seamy shenanigans in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.
While I’ve never been privileged to see either in the role, I’d put money on the competitive excellence of Troy Kotsur, a signing performer whose sizzling portrayal dominates the current Deaf West production at Cal State L.A.’s State Playhouse.
Directed by Stephen Rothman, with (unseen) voiced accompaniment by Collin Bressie and James Foster, the play takes place in a junk shop owned by Donny Dubrow (Paul Raci), and jumpstarts around Donny’s plan to steal back an American buffalo nickel that had been purchased from him for ninety dollars.
Donny thinks the coin is worth much more money, and that his foolish parting with it at such a low price needs to be remedied. He plans to execute the heist with the help of Bobby (Matthew Ryan Pest), a younger employee he’s taken under his wing. When Teach gets wind, he campaigns to exclude Bobby from the caper, which he sees, hyperbolically, as a golden business opportunity.
In reality the stakes — in tandem with the intellects of these incompetent thieves — are laughably low. Nonetheless, Donny and Teach determinedly pursue their plan, imbued with a misguidedly sanctimonious sense of themselves as free enterprise capitalists.
Given their theorizing, it’s not until way into the second act that something happens to jolt the audience from their seats. Before that it’s up to the performers to draw us in with animated portraits of these pathological connivers. And Kotsur does just that, skittering and slithering about the stage as a braggart whose insecurities simmer dangerously near the surface.
As Bobby, Pest also exudes a presence - aware he’s being excluded from the game but warily sensitive to the perils of tangling with Teach. As Don, Raci is almost achromatic at times, especially beside Kotsur’s outlandish carryings-on. He needs to be more invested.
The production has been mounted in collaboration with Cal State L.A.’s Department of Music, Theatre and Dance. A note about scenic designer Ken George’s set: It’s a handsome expensive visual and a thrift store browser’s dream, but it’s far too attractive as the backdrop for this underworld play.
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Deaf West Theatre at the State Playhouse, 5151 State University Drive, L.A.; through March 8. (818) 762-2998, deafwest.org.
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