26 pages 52 minutes read

David Mamet

American Buffalo

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1975

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Summary and Study Guide


American Buffalo is a 1975 off-Broadway play written by American playwright David Mamet. It first premiered in Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1975, reaching Broadway in 1977. Along with two other plays, The Duck Variations (1971) and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), American Buffalo established Mamet as a reputable writer. The play explores friendship and greed among the working classes. The 1976 publication from Grove Press (New York) serves as the basis for this guide.

The play has appeared on Broadway three times since its premiere in 1977, including a 2022 revival starring Laurence Fishburne (“Donny”), Sam Rockwell (“Teach”), and Darren Criss (“Bobby”). In 1996, it was made into a film directed by Michael Corrente, with a cast that included Dustin Hoffman.

Plot Summary

On a Friday in Don’s Resale Shop, the owner, Donny, sits with his teenaged assistant Bobby in the back room. Donny chides Bobby for having left the store front unattended. Donny gives Bobby a stern but well-intentioned lecture on the importance of strict business practices. He cites the example of a certain Fletcher—who, along with a woman named Ruthie, won a poker game the previous night—as someone who knows the rules of the street, and who has succeeded by being a man of action.

Walter Cole, called “Teach,” enters the store complaining about how Ruthie and Grace treated him coldly at the nearby Riverside Diner (“The Riv”). Though he doesn’t say so, it is clear that he is actually upset about the previous night’s poker game. To quell Teach’s anger, Donny suggests that Bobby go next door to get some breakfast from The Riv. When Bobby is gone, Teach continues to complain about Ruthie’s success at the poker game. Teach attack’s Ruthie’s character and lesbian relationship.

When Bobby returns from The Riv with breakfast, he has forgotten Don’s coffee. Bobby also mentions having seen a man, whose identity they both tacitly understand as being a target for theft, putting a suitcase in his car. After Donny sends Bobby back to the Riv for the coffee, Teach pushes Donny for details about the man with the suitcase. Donny explains that a recent customer bought a buffalo nickel for $90, though Donny is certain that it is worth more. Feeling cheated, Donny plans to steal the nickel back from the man and offer it to a collector whose phone number he has from a mutual friend, Earl.

Teach commends Donny for recognizing this favorable situation and encourages Donny to steal more than the single coin. He suggests that Bobby not participate in the job, owing to his drug habit. Donny is not immediately convinced; however, when Bobby returns with the coffee, Donny offers him some money, but tells him that it is a gift, and that the plans for the heist are canceled.

When Bobby leaves, Teach is pleased that Donny has heeded his advice about dismissing Bobby from the heist. Reluctantly he accepts Donny’s suggestion to enlist Fletcher’s aid. Donny says that Fletcher’s street smarts will help them close the deal. The three men plan to reconvene at the shop later that evening.

Later at the shop, Donny and Teach wait for Fletcher, who is late. Meanwhile, Bobby arrives unexpectedly and asks Donny for some money in exchange for another buffalo nickel. Don and Teach hurriedly offer Bobby money to expedite his departure so that they can proceed with the robbery, and allow him to keep the nickel.

As time passes and Fletcher does not appear, Teach questions Fletcher’s integrity. He claims to have noticed Fletcher cheating in a poker game. Teach proposes that perhaps Fletcher and Bobby have already stolen the nickel on their own. Refusing to wait any longer, Teach proposes going to the target’s house alone. As he leaves, a gun falls out of his pocket, startling Donny. Tension mounts as Donny refuses to bring the gun. Cops drive by the store, and someone knocks at the door. Bobby enters and announces that Fletcher is in the hospital with a broken jaw after a mugging.

Teach doesn’t believe Bobby’s story. Donny calls the hospital, and they deny that Fletcher is there. Donny begins to believe that Bobby and Fletcher undertook the theft alone. Teach throws an object from the junk store counter at Bobby, making his ear bleed.

The phone rings. It’s Ruthie, who reports that Fletcher is in the hospital, though at a different hospital than the one Bobby mentioned. Donny thanks Ruthie, and, after hanging up, calls the other hospital and confirms Fletcher’s admission. Donny says they will visit Fletcher in the morning, and calls off the planned heist. Bobby confesses that he himself purchased the buffalo nickel in a coin store.

Donny thanks Bobby for coming to report Fletcher’s injury, but Teach, furious that the theft has been canceled, attacks Donny’s character. Donny hits Teach, in defense of both himself and Bobby. Bobby admits that he never saw the man putting a suitcase in his car. Teach starts to trash the junk shop, claiming that the world is a lie. Donny tries to calm Teach down, and insists that they drive Bobby to the hospital, which Teach agrees to do. Bobby apologizes to Donny as Teach gets his car.