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CATCO and Deaf West’s Riveting ‘American Buffalo’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford CATCO and Deaf West’s Riveting ‘American Buffalo’Paul Raci, Troy Kotsur in Deaf West's American Buffalo, showing through December 9. Photo by Noel Bass.
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CATCO closes a strong 2017 bringing Columbus the LA-based company Deaf West’s riveting production of Mamet’s groundbreaking American Buffalo directed by Stephen Rothman.

American Buffalo is a flaming torrent of profanity featuring three men on the fringes of society. Their world shrinks to a Chicago pawn shop (the remarkable, lived in set is courtesy of Ken George). Donny (Paul Raci), the pawnshop proprietor, has taken Bobby (Matthew Ryan Pest) under his wing as Bobby tries to stay clean. Donny’s old friend Teach (Troy Kostur) shows up like a tornado. Teach’s arrival, after an airing of grievances, upends Bobby and Donny’s dream of a no-mess heist off a coin collector who came through the shop. Things go predictably wrong.

Paul Raci, Troy Kotsur in Deaf West's American Buffalo, showing through December 9. Photo by Noel Bass.

Paul Raci, Troy Kotsur in Deaf West’s American Buffalo, showing through December 9. Photo by Noel Bass.

The point of the play is language: Mamet’s unshakeable belief that words create our worlds and hide our motives. Rothman’s production and these three fine actors elide much of what hasn’t aged well in this 40-year-old play and remind us of what’s still fresh. The gnarled melting of syntax and rhythm gets an extra layer with the use of sign language.

Troy Kostur, deaf from birth, gives a performance for the ages as Teach. Kostur attacks one of the most verbose characters in the American canon with sign language. Kostur’s physicality captures the caged-animal nature of Teach better than any actor I’ve ever seen. He intimidates and wheedles through that little shop like he owns it. His exchanges with Paul Raci’s Donny never default to an easy rapid-fire staccato. The two men find things to savor. The actors and Rothman understand the frenzy to get out of that squeezing, grasping life is tempered with knowledge it probably won’t work. Their interactions have the performative quality of two old men who know the essential quality of entertaining themselves.

Matthew Ryan Pest has thankless work as Bobby in the shadow of these towering personalities but he implies the key plot twists with a subtlety and nuance more natural and less forced than any production I’ve seen. His translation of the little stutter as he tries to say “Masonic Hospital” into sign language is three seconds that hits the audience like a hot coal. He lets us in. The audience can’t look away from what Raci’s Donny sees in Bobby. Raci’s cracking “I’m sorry,” bubbles up like lava in the cracks of his witty, wise persona.

Collin Bressie (Teach) and James Feuer (Donny) do admirable work voicing these characters through a listening device provided to hearing audiences. The natural, seamless shifting between vocal speech (with surtitles for the hearing impaired audience) and sign is a key part of the fabric of the world Rothman lays out for us with Mamet’s language as his lens and megaphone.

American Buffalo runs through December 9 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org

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