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American Buffalo

David Mamet's play about the value of a coin and the price it exacts from those who covet it gets an entertaining production in the Massachusetts Berkshires with Chris Noth taking on the role of Teach, the character that for many is minted in the dazzling perf of Al Pacino in the 1981 revival.

David Mamet’s play about the value of a coin and the price it exacts from those who covet it gets an entertaining production in the Massachusetts Berkshires with Chris Noth taking on the role of Teach, the character that for many is minted in the dazzling perf of Al Pacino in the 1981 revival. Noth brings his own creds to the role, playing the outcast con as a lovable lug of a loser, with just enough looks, hustle and bravado to stay in the game.

While Noth, a veteran of the sly smile and engaging charm with HBO’s “Sex and the City,” certainly connects with the play’s humor — and it is a very funny work, too — there’s a sense of danger and desperation missing just below the surface. The continual outpouring of this small-time hood’s every scatological-infused feeling and thought is funny in its loopy street logic and certainly Noth knows how to land a look or a line. (His brown polyester shirt from costumer Olivera Gajic announces “funny loser” before he bursts on stage for Mamet’s famous opening rant.)

But the hidden terrors, rage and desires of a man who knows he hasn’t many cons left is barely hinted at with occasional moody looks and minor bits of business and only manifests itself in the play’s violent conclusion.

There’s more pent-up fury and fear in the perf of Mamet regular Jim Frangione as Donny, the owner of the junk shop where the plot’s would-be heist of a rare Buffalo nickel is planned.

Often cast older, here Frangione’s Donny is a poker pal, a “business” partner and a competitor to Teach. The more equal dynamic between them in this production is less generational and more the presentation of two sides of the same coin: a con who lays it all out and one who keeps his secrets to himself. In a way, the production achieves a balance as both compelling characters struggle in their own way to make their one shot at “real classical money” work for themselves.

A younger Donny also makes his relationship with Bob, the junkie go-fer kid, not just the typical father-son, teacher-student pairing but something even more needy. Sean Nelson, who starred in the film version of the play (which featured Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz), gives a simple-yet-nuanced perf as someone who wants to fit in as well, but like Donny and Teach, screw it up with delusions, paranoia and incompetence.

The three men, despite their underclass status, are all after the real capitalist coin of the realm: the American Dream. But they don’t realize for them that it’s a myth and as unattainable as the mark they are seeking. Try as they might with their how-to-succeed axioms and continuous strategizing, they don’t see that, like the junk in Donny’s store, they are absurd outcasts and their lives in the currency of society aren’t even worth a nickel.

But the actors with their compassionate perfs make us believe, understand and even sympathize with their hopeless struggle, perhaps even recognizing ourselves in their trap, too.

Helmer Anders Cato takes the pacing down a notch to savor some of the music of Mamet’s raw street language — but he sometimes lingers too long when greater dramatic urgency is demanded. Still, he and his actors manage to find their focus in Carl Sprague’s marvelously junk-filled set. Jeff Davis’ lighting and Scott Killian’s sound and music also create a mood of despair and anxiousness.

American Buffalo

Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, Mass.; 415 seats; $58 top

  • Production: A Berkshire Theater Festival presentation of a play in two acts by David Mamet. Directed by Anders Cato.
  • Crew: Sets, Carl Sprague; costumes, Olivera Gajic; lighting, Jeff Davis; sound and music, Scott Killian; stage manager, Jennifer Cicelsky-George. Opened, reviewed, July 29, 2005. Continues through Aug. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: Don Dubrow - Jim Frangione Bob - Sean Nelson Teach - Chris Noth