A minor classic by Mamet tours

While New York audiences are lapping up David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Glengarry Glen Ross,'' a national tour of Mamet's earlier work, ''American Buffalo,'' is now under way. With Al Pacino at the helm of the three-member cast , it is a revival well worth seeing.

Since its Obie-winning Off Broadway run in 1976, ''American Buffalo'' has become a minor classic in American theater. It is a distinctively gritty, pugnacious work that launched its author into theatrical stardom for his unusual facility with language.

Stylistically, it is a play that may not be to everyone's taste; Mamet has been called an ''ear-to-the-gutter'' writer. But substantively it confronts themes such as friendship, capitalism, and survival - subjects to which the author returns with greater sophistication in ''Glengarry Glen Ross.''

Mr. Mamet has been quoted as saying ''American Buffalo'' is a play about ''three guys trying to be excellent.'' Plotwise it is not extraordinary - three small-time Chicago hoods plan an equally small-time heist. And it is painfully, and hilariously, evident that the three - Don, Teach, and Bobby, the gofer - are not up to even this insipid task. The characters' abundant attempts at bravado - ''keep straight who your friends are . . . the rest is garbage,'' ''Breakfast is the most important meal of the day'' - keep the wit and cliched wisdom flying in close cadence.

On paper, ''American Buffalo'' is a depressing read, with short, clipped sentences rife with profanities, which have since become the author's trademark. But in production - and this one under the direction of Arvin Brown is particularly adept - the sly humor and sheer rythmn of language are abundantly evident. At times it is possible to simply hear the beat and cadence of Teach and Don's give-and-take while not comprehending the words' meaning. One scene in particular - ''Where do you put it?'' ''In my wallet.'' ''Exactly'' - carries the listener along in much the same patterns as the old Abbott and Costello ''Who's on first'' routine.

In this regard, Mamet's work stands slightly apart from that of Harold Pinter , the British playwright to which Mamet has been compared. While both writers are amazingly adept at saying more with less, Mamet's work escapes with fewer pregnant pauses and less irony. His linguistic rythmns are pure America - whiz-bang and brutal all at the same time. If nothing else, ''American Buffalo'' is a piece satisfying to the ear if one can get used to the obscenities.

But the enduring status of this play testifies to more than stylistic success. There is no question that Mamet is a man's writer and his conceits are largely masculine. Women barely figure in his work. Characters are seldom introspective; they do not undergo apocalyptic transformations of self. In this play, Mamet has linked them to a bruising business ethic - ''there's business and there's friendship,'' says Don - and it is against this standard that they stumble, fall, and scramble forward. It is a tragic-comic view of the American capitalistic system - and one against which Mamet's men ultimately, and usually vainly, measure their self-worth.

The characters' thoughts often go no further than the words that spew from their mouths. ''Knowing what . . . you're talking about . . . it's so rare,'' says Teach at one point. Indeed, it is possible to see the characters' discussion of valuable coins - the object of the intended heist - as a metaphor for language itself. They are both a currency, a way of assessing value and meaning to an exchange, no matter how subjective or arbitrary.

This production, which opened at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre and traveled to New York, San Francisco, and now Boston, does justice to Mamet's intent. The resale shop set by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is amusingly and grimly chockablock with discarded skis, bikes, hubcaps, oars, and chairs. The below-street-level effect - complete with wire grating on the grimy windows - is a deft touch. As is the rainstorm that breaks out and recedes at particularly appropriate moments during the second act.

As for the acting, Al Pacino as Teach is a stocky human maelstrom on stage, with his constant posturing, arm movements, and hitching up his trousers. It is a studied performance, but one that works to his advantage, although he has a tendency to swallow some lines. ''It would be unnatural I wouldn't be tense,'' he says.

Bruce MacVittie as the drug-addicted, almost inarticulate Bobby is a strong addition to this cast, although he has played the role with Pacino before. MacVittie's stringy hair, sparrowlike eyes, and pinched shoulder stance are wonderfully appropriate to his character, who is out of the game before he has even begun. Only J.J. Johnston, who originated the role of Don and to whom the play is dedicated, seems occasionally out of step. While physically appropriate to the role - a thick-featured, tall, florid man - Johnston remains static in his character. But it is a small point in an otherwise crisp production, which crackles along under Brown's able direction.

''American Buffalo'' will play in Boston at least through May 5. Other cities on the tour may include Chicago and London. The production may also go abroad.

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