One Friday morning in Don’s Resale Shop, Donny and Bobby are talking; Donny is upset because Bobby abandoned his post in the store when he was supposed to be watching someone. While Bobby apologizes, Donny imparts some wisdom about running a business, referring to Fletcher, a winning poker player, who embodies the critical savvy people can learn only on the street. It is evident that Donny cares about Bobby as a friend and his mentor.
Shortly, Walter Cole, called Teach, enters the shop ranting about a trivial misunderstanding with Ruthie and Grace, some poker friends, over a recent breakfast; to assuage Teach’s fury, Donny suggests that Bobby run to the Riverside restaurant to pick up breakfast for the three of them. In Bobby’s absence, the two discuss last night’s poker game, and Teach expounds on the necessary distinction between business and friendship. During the exchange, Teach picks up some old knickknacks from the counter and complains that if only he had kept all the things he threw out, he would be a wealthy man.
Bobby reenters the shop with breakfast, but he has forgotten Donny’s coffee. Before heading back to the restaurant to retrieve the coffee, Bobby tells Donny that he saw the guy they are looking for leaving the restaurant with a suitcase. Teach wants to know about the man with the suitcase. Donny first hesitates but then tells Teach that the man had recently taken advantage of him by purchasing a buffalo nickel for less than what it is worth. Donny wants revenge and plans to steal the nickel from the man, then resell it at a higher price to another collector.
Teach warns against involving Bobby, alluding to Bobby’s history of drug use, and argues that Donny is blinded by his sense of loyalty, which angers him. Donny assures Teach that Bobby is clean, but Teach insists he himself is the better person for the job. Bobby reenters the shop with the coffee, and Teach verbally bullies him, trying to make him look incompetent to Donny. Bobby, oblivious, asks Donny for some money for the nickel job up front; Donny agrees to give Bobby the cash, but tells him to forget about the job.
Bobby leaves, and Teach and Donny discuss their plans for the theft, talking with certainty about how they will get in but uncertain where the coins will be located. Teach suggests they take more than just the coins for their trouble. Donny, worried they might need help, decides to bring in Fletcher, which makes Teach feel slighted; in the end he agrees. They plan to meet again later that night.
Later that evening, Donny tries to contact Teach and Fletcher, irritated by their tardiness. Bobby enters and tells Donny that he needs money; he wants to sell a buffalo nickel that he has acquired. Distracted, Donny tells him he wants to consult his coin book first. Teach enters, sees Bobby, and demands an explanation. To get Bobby to leave, Donny orders Teach to give him some money and promises Bobby they will talk tomorrow. Bobby leaves.
Teach is defensive and suspicious, asking Donny about Fletcher’s whereabouts and about Bobby’s nickel; eventually, Donny settles him and they continue working on the robbery plan, deciding they should call the target’s house to make sure he is not there; it appears he is not.
Donny continues to make calls in search of Fletcher, while Teach explicates a cutthroat version of free enterprise. Teach is suspicious of Fletcher and suggests they do the job without him, but Donny disagrees; they continue in heated discussion about the theft....
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The longer they wait, however, the more aggressive Teach becomes. Finally, Teach declares he is going to the target’s house himself, and then reveals a gun, which he explains he needs in case something goes wrong. There is a sudden knock on the door, but it is only Bobby.
According to Bobby, Fletcher has been mugged and is in the hospital. Bobby then says that he has business to take care of, and turns to leave; Teach stops him, disbelieving his story. Bobby cannot tell them exactly where Fletcher has been taken, so Teach continues his interrogation and asks where Bobby got the nickel. Donny begins to side with Teach, thinking perhaps Bobby went ahead with the deal himself. The men grow more combative, and Bobby pleads that he is telling the truth. Suddenly, Teach picks up some junk from nearby and hits Bobby in the head.
Donny, having lost all softness toward Bobby, tells him he brought the hit on himself and demands he tell them where Fletcher is. The phone rings; it is Ruthie, who says Fletcher is at Columbus Hospital. Donny confirms with a phone call. Meanwhile, Bobby begins to bleed out of his ear, and Donny concedes there will be no job tonight. Bobby, whimpering, explains that he bought the nickel for Donny in a coin store earlier today. Donny’s feelings of compassion for Bobby return, but Teach insists that hitting Bobby was for his own good. Donny yells at Teach to leave.
Teach calls Donny a fake, accusing him of taking the side of a junkie. Furious, Donny advances on him, beating him. In the background, Bobby admits that he never saw the coin buyer earlier. After this news, Teach trashes Donny’s store in a rage. After the destruction, Donny stands stunned. Teach asks if he is mad at him, and Donny replies no, telling Teach to get his car and take Bobby to the hospital. Teach leaves, and Donny helps Bobby to his feet and apologizes; Bobby returns the apology, blaming himself. Donny consoles him, saying he did “real good.”
The scene is a sleazy junk store, run by Donny, in a run-down urban setting. Donny runs the shop in a low key, using Bobby to run errands for him. The world of the shop is cluttered and arbitrary, an organic construction rather than a carefully designed one. The financial stakes are low here; an occasional sale to a passerby is enough to sustain the two men in their unambitious lives.
Into this mix comes Teach—angry, “wired,” full of venomous energy—with a plan, a scheme, a project of the will (to use Henrik Ibsen’s term). It is not enough for Teach to plan and carry out the crime; his innate secretiveness, paranoia, and distrust must extend to his partners, Donny and an offstage figure (Fletch) who eventually deserts the project. Teach brings an anger with him that has become emblematic of the kind of vicious energy that drives Mamet’s plays forward. One sees the same kind of energy in Bernie (Sexual Perversity in Chicago) and in Roma (Glengarry Glen Ross), although Roma is closer to a hero than other destructive Mamet characters.
Driving the minor-key greed of the two more passive characters (Bobby is slightly simple, helpful, and, in a scheme of his own, determined to please Donny) is the possibility of stealing back a coin Donny sold to a customer some time previously. Apparently the coin, a buffalo-head nickel, has some value, because the customer paid fifty dollars for it. Rather than taking delight in Donny’s windfall, Teach sees the customer as a cheat who probably knows the coin was worth even more. Thus, as a kind of angry revenge, they can steal the coin back with a clear conscience—the customer has somehow turned into the villain, and the trio become, in their own minds, the Robin Hood-like righters of wrongs.
What goes wrong with the burglary is distrust and lack of sophistication. First, the victim is not away from the house; the thieves have been misinformed by Bobby, because he left his observation post. Also, their silent partner has not shown up, and they suspect that he has preceded them in the theft and betrayed them. In fact, he is in the hospital, but they do not believe the story. At the end of the play, Donny shows that he is not another Teach but a friend of a more compassionate order.
The play is not exactly an indictment of all business. The question of trust, of partnership, is examined, and the conclusion is double-sided. The agreements between Donny and Teach are suspect because they are based on distrust; however, the relationship between Donny and Bobby is more genuine. In the opening scene, when Bobby is sent to get food for Donny, there is a sense that the way business works best is by trust—Donny tells Bobby to buy some food for himself as well and does not quibble about the money.
When Teach enters, his first lament is about an incident that occurred in the same restaurant—an argument over half a piece of toast. While the scenes are immediate and dynamic, on reflection they represent two ways of “doing business” (which for Mamet means joining in any relationship). Either the business arrangement is the only connection between partners, in which case duplicity and trickery are parts of the agreement, or else the business arrangement is part of a larger relationship, one of affection and mutual trust, in which case the automatic self-serving attitudes of the business person have no place.
Now widely done on the regional stage, this play is often the center of controversy regarding appropriate stage language for more conservative audiences. Its success as drama has invariably won the argument in favor of language verisimilitude, and the rest of Mamet’s works have subsequently been widely accepted.