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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

James Ridge (right) and Brian Mani star in "American Buffalo." (PHOTO: Zane Williams)

Acting tornado blows through Spring Green in APT's "American Buffalo"


It's doubtful that any of the weather guys reported it, but a tornado touched down in Spring Green, west of Madison on Saturday.

And what's more the whirlwind is coming back, again and again, thank goodness.

The tornado was actor James Ridge, who played one-half of the most dysfunctional yet dedicated group of friends the world has ever seen when American Players Theatre opened "American Buffalo" by David Mamet.

The play was written almost 40 years ago and created a senstion with some of the most brutal and corrosive language ever heard on an American stage. It also cemented Mamet's reputation as one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.

Ridge and Brian Mani, along with a tender and sweet Brendan Meyer, give this production a forceful drive that scarcely left time for an audience to breathe.

Mani owns a resale shop, the site of poker games played with a group of friends. Meyer is the teenaged friend, gopher and a bit of a mentoree to Mani. And Ridge is the turbulent friend of Mani. Together, the two grown men plot to steal rare coins from a man who has stopped in the store. But this play is about so much more than the fumbling attempts to commit a minor crime.

Ridge and Mani live life as if it is a constant game of poker. They bluff, they raise, they draw to inside straights and they fold. The one thing neither of them does is hold or stand pat.

The tempo of this story is driven by Ridge, who is a dervish of complex and simple emotion. From his wild bell bottoms to his John Travolta big collared shirt over a fake leather jacket, he is every mother's nightmare of the guy she hopes her daughter never dates.

I have a deep and abiding love for salty language, and I don't think I know a single swear word that Ridge didn't either utter or shout at one time or another. His opening diatribe about the unseen Ruth – allegedly a friend – is a priceless piece of bitter savagery that is either going to turn you squeamish or make you laugh out loud.

Mamet has that creative ability to mix outrageous humor with much more subtle but strongly held points of morality.

His point here is the protective nature that the business class wraps itself in while leaving a trail of hapless victims along a dusty road that leads nowhere. The critical thing for the moneyed class is that they always seem certain that they are always right.

Meyer's teenager, unwise and without even a veneer of sophistication, is the victim in this one. He's the embodiment of the early view Mamet had that the unfortunate continued to be so not because they didn't want more, but because power was wilfully denied to them.

Mani is the steady force that both tolerates and encourages Ridge's craziness. For those who remember those "wild and crazy" guys from "Saturday Night Live," you will recognize Ridge perfectly. But like those guys, he could not exist unless there was a Mani to suffer this fool gladly.

Under the direction of Kenneth Albers and on a spectacular set designed by Liz Freese, these three actors lure the audience into their midst with an honesty that flows like a wide open tap.

There is a standard at APT that has been set for 35 years, and it has not been earned by being cautious or playing it safe. This is a bold company, willing to take risks, as with "American Buffalo."

This play has been produced many times, and many of those productions have toned down characters, especially Teach, Ridge's character. In this production, Teach is on a unstoppable tear and beware anyone who steps into his path.

What we learn here is that no matter how loud someone shouts or how brutal they are, they aren't nearly as special as they think they are.


Talkbacks

k.warneke312 | Sept. 28, 2014 at 11:13 p.m. (report)

I am very grateful for Mr. Begel's review of APT's American Buffalo. He did not exaggerate, Ridge and Mani did create a storm(s) on the stage. I have never seen an actor deliver a performance of such perfection, force, subtlety, intricacy, intensity, complexity and effort as Ridge did in American Buffalo. His broad movements & small gestures alone were absolutely mind blowing to observe. I don't believe I'll ever see a live performance like that again, which is why I will drive the 8 hours round trip again to see the work a second time. I've seen a few very good things, Malkovich in True West in 1982, Jeff Dorchen in The Croaking Fascist and the Armband Variations in 1993, Harold Pinter at Lincoln Center as an actor in One for the Road in 2001, Paul Jenkins and Tom Bower in No Man's Land at the Lost Studio in L.A. in 2006. Ridge's performance may have bested them all. Mr. Mani perfectly captured a particular type of old school Chicagoan I vividly recall since my earliest days here in Chicago. He was a great joy to watch and hear. So thank you very, very much Mr. Begel.

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