Photo by Owen Carey

THREE UNHAPPY MEN, a crowded junk shop, and a buffalo nickel—these are the bare bones of American Buffalo, one of David Mamet's strongest plays. And in the hands of Third Rail Repertory, under the clear-eyed direction of Daniel Stern (whom you may remember from such films as Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York), and featuring an absolutely killer performance by Third Rail company member Tim True, American Buffalo is the first must-see production of Portland's 2009/2010 season.

Pawn shop owner Donny (Bruce Burkhartsmeier) sells a rare buffalo nickel for $90, only to later conclude that it was worth far more. Bitterly, he concocts a plan to steal the coin back, with the help of the hapless ex-junkie Bobby (Brian Weaver). When Donny's bilious friend Teach (Tim True) hears about the plan, he decides he wants in.

The buffalo and the nickel that bears its stamp are all kinds of metaphor here: for objects old and battered that still have value; for, as Stern writes in his director's notes, "three men who have been discarded from the American machine." "Like the American buffalo," he continues, "they are being pushed to the point of extinction, their Home on the Range being shrunk down to the size of a pawnshop in Chicago."

Accordingly, there's a lot of rage bottled up in this production, and it sees its purest expression in Tim True's character: Teach bursts onstage in Hunter S. Thompson-style sunglasses, ranting about a friend who wronged him (a word for the fainthearted: women and lesbians are insulted in terms both creative and banal). He hasn't slept in days, and it seems like greed and resentment must be the only forces keeping him upright, but he's got a jittery, dangerous charisma that compels the others to listen even when he's not quite making sense. It's a shambolic, outrageous performance, prickly with menace yet somehow still fun to watch, and if you weren't already convinced that True is one of Portland's best actors—well, this should do it.

While its scenes are dominated by violence, shouting, and expletive-laden diatribes, American Buffalo is about more than angry, marginalized white men—there's tenderness in there too, somewhere. Under Stern's direction, these three actors unerringly locate its battered heart—leather-tough and shriveled, but still beating.