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A Portrayal Of Chicago Business Ethics – Truth or Fiction?

American Buffalo

My beautiful wife Michele and I are season-ticket holders of a suburban theater, and we also enjoy going to see plays put on by the theater departments of some of the many colleges in the Chicagoland area that have well-developed theater programs.

Last week we went to see “American Buffalo” in the Drama Lab at Harper College in Palatine.

When I first read all about it in Harper’s “upcoming events,” I was surprised that I had never heard of the play. But based on what little I read before purchasing the tickets, I was excited to go see it.

First of all, it was written by Chicago native David Mamet, who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing one of my all-time favorites, “Glengarry, Glen Ross” (an absolute MUST-see for everyone involved in sales in any way). Mamet was also nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for “The Verdict,” a movie starring future entrepreneur extraordinaire Paul Newman as a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic, Boston College-educated lawyer. The movie debuted the year I first became a student at Boston College Law School myself (not to mention the same year that Newman first started selling his iconic salad dressing).

American Buffalo was billed as “a menacing, humorous and philosophical masterpiece,” and its promotional flyer featured a simple-but-impressive quote from The New York Times: “Gripping drama.” (That Times critic, Frank Rich, even hailed it as “one of the best American plays of the last decade.”)

It debuted at the Goodman Theater in 1975, then moved to Broadway, winning an Obie Award in 1976 for Best New Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the 1977 season.

Over the years, its stars have included Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, John Savage, J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy and Dennis Franz.

As if all of that wasn’t enough to make me want to go see it, the entire play happened to be set inside a 1970’s small business, starring a Chicago resale shop owner and providing what the promotional materials promised to be “an unusual twist on the concept of free enterprise.”

Sold! I bought my tickets, added the show date and time to my calendar and started looking forward to the evening’s entertainment with great anticipation.

That evening, we showed up at the theater early, because all tickets were “General Admission” and I wanted to make sure we got great seats (as it turns out, we may have arrived just a bit too early, because there were only 4 other people there before us).

We settled into our front-row seats, read our Playbills, and had fun checking out all the various “junk” and memorabilia strewn about the set – much of it bringing back fond memories of our childhood. We counted down the minutes to the start of the show, written by an award-winning, Chicago-born playwright, based on a Chicago business, and promising to feature a humorous and philosophical view of free enterprise…

But then came the play itself.

I wasn’t menaced. I wasn’t humored. And not only wasn’t I “gripped,” but I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Now I’m no theater expert, so I can’t tell you exactly why I was so thoroughly disappointed.

Maybe it was just that the three amateur actors weren’t up to delivering the script as it was meant to be. That is certainly understandable – after all, this was a “drama lab” production at a small college, and one of the cast members was acting in his first-ever play.

(That reminds me of way back in my homeless/dead broke days, when I would get my hair cut for free at a nearby beauty school. The experience often left much to be desired, but how could I complain?)

For whatever reason, my expectation that I would see a play about business, or business philosophy, or “free enterprise” was completely unfulfilled. Instead, the play is about three low-life criminals and their inability to pull off even a simple robbery.

When I got home, I did some extensive research into reviews and critiques of the play, searching for reasons why my expectations were so ridiculously far off-base.

Sure enough, a couple of reviews agreed with my assessment, calling it “a poor excuse for a play” and “too superficial to waste time upon.” But the overwhelming majority of critics gave complimentary critiques.

My personal opinion is that my disappointment is the result of my eternally optimistic, heroic view of small business owners and entrepreneurs and the vital role they play in our society. Mamet’s view, however (just as in his other works that I mentioned above, when I carefully thought about it), appears to be completely contrary to mine.

As one critic wrote, “These three failed crooks are the waste products of the American belief in free enterprise.” Another claimed that “the author has proclaimed that he had in mind nothing less than a general indictment of American business ethics.”

No wonder I didn’t enjoy it. Unlike Glengarry, Glen Ross, I didn’t sense even a shred of humor or sarcasm. And there’s just no way I could possibly enjoy someone’s attempt to suggest that small business owners and entrepreneurs are basically evil and soul-less.

How about you? Have you seen the play? What did you think?

I’d love to read your response in a comment below.

2 Responses to A Portrayal Of Chicago Business Ethics – Truth or Fiction?

  1. Diamond Taylor Brown Reply

    May 9, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Sorry Steve,

    I have not have the unpleasure (my play on words) to have witness such theatrical travesty. I am one that loves live theater and would have shared in your disappointment.
    I hope you and your wife at least had a wonderful dinner to make up for such a crappy play.

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