After 20 years working in Orlando arts, and over a decade writing about it, I like to think I'm familiar with most of the local theater spaces and performing troupes. So it's a bit embarrassing to discover a new-to-me group that's been doing notable work right under my nose.
I can perhaps be forgiven for failing to pay proper attention to Theater on the Edge, since the company's first and only previous production – David Ives' Venus in Fur – got swallowed up in the madness of last May's Fringe Festival. But the Truthful Acting Studio, of which this new organization is an outgrowth, has apparently been around and flying under my radar for about eight years. If their current mounting of David Mamet's American Buffalo is anything to go by, I'll be making up for lost time by paying a lot more attention to this outfit's output going forward.
Longtime followers of Orlando's theater scene know American Buffalo has an auspicious history among local freshman theaters – it was, famously, the first show staged in 1989 by Theatre Downtown at the Orange Avenue space they occupied for a quarter-century. Theater on the Edge also makes their home off Orange Avenue, but at the distant southern end. Instead of Ivanhoe Village's trendy Antique Row, the Truthful Acting Studio's storefront space at 5542 Hansel Ave. in Edgewood is surrounded by far less fashionable strip malls.
Once you're inside the intimate 40-odd-seat venue, it's instantly apparent that this Buffalo is no bare-bones budget black-box production. Mamet's 1975 drama is set inside a seedy Chicago secondhand shop, and the detritus decorating every inch is as much a character as any of the three actors on stage. The set, designed by company co-founder Samantha DiGeorge, immediately establishes the production's hyperrealistic tone with a perfect balance of exacting period authenticity and subtle surrealism, as broken chairs and rusted tricycles seemingly float off the overstuffed shelves.
That ethos of authenticity turned up to 11 extends to the production's performances, which are informed by Sanford Meisner's acting techniques emphasizing instinctive emotion and "living truthfully" in the present moment.
"Meisner is just about finding the human element," Theater on the Edge artistic director Marco DiGeorge told me after the performance, adding, "Every character that we ever do here, we want to find the depth of who they are as a human being." American Buffalo provides actors with an ideal playground to explore the Meisner method's potential.
"Mamet on the surface is vulgar and funny, but there's real people behind it," DiGeorge explains. "Trying to find what really drives these people, what's at their core: That's what we want to try to explore with all of our plays."
The resulting performances provide textbook examples of the technique's naturalistic effects. Allan Whitehead, as store proprietor Donny Dubrow, looks and sounds like the sad-sack sibling of SNL's Bill Swerski, with world-weariness oozing from every pore on his balding pate. And Zack Roundy, playing the slow-witted juvenile junkie Bobby, seems liable to nod out at a moment's notice.
As solid as his two co-stars are, it's DiGeorge who commands attention every moment he's on stage as Walter "Teach" Cole, a grasping grifter with delusions of grandeur. Looking like the lovechild of Serpico-era Al Pacino and makeup artist Tom Savini, DiGeorge nails every external element of his interpretation, from his nasal Illinois twang to the way his twitching fingers are perpetually in motion, like a three-card-monte hustler jonesing for his next mark.
As the trio of thugs bicker profanely over plans to heist a rare coin, director Pam Harbaugh wisely keeps the focus grounded on the group's dysfunctional family dynamic. There's plenty of allegorical material about the corruption of American capitalism to mine in the script, but the political implications aren't allowed to overwhelm the oddly touching relationships being examined.
If this production has one flaw, it's that the performances are a bit too thoughtful and deeply felt to fuel the intended tempo. Dialogue rarely overlaps until the appropriately chaotic climax, and many of Mamet's carefully crafted pauses feel agonizingly elongated, resulting in a running time almost 10 minutes longer than the 2008 Broadway revival.
American Buffalo runs Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 20. Theater on the Edge hasn't announced their next production yet, but DiGeorge says it will stick with their core mission to train their conservatory of students by "finding material that's edgy, but at the same time can dive deep into the human condition." Whatever it is, I'll bet a buffalo nickel it will be well worth watching.