In this third Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” which feels like at least one revival too many, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss portray three low-life losers who view themselves as savvy businessmen but can’t even seem to finish their sentences, much less follow through on a burglary they all agree is a good idea.
Forty-five years ago, this play marked Mamet’s Broadway debut, establishing him as having such a distinctive voice in his use of dialogue that it’s come to be called Mamet speak.
“American Buffalo” remains all about the Mamet speak, with its rat-tat-tat staccato rhythm, repetition, and over-the-top expletives and slurs, some of which are actually more shocking now, given the heightened sensitivities these days. What the characters are actually saying is often elusive (“They’re from 1933”/”From the thing?”/”Yeah”), full of non-sequiturs, and threaded through with banalities. But the dialogue is also transparent in the know-nothingness of these know-it-alls, which frequently makes it funny.
It takes close to a half hour of this back-and-forth among the three characters before even the suggestion of a plot kicks in.
Donny Dubrow (Laurence Fishburne) recently sold what he calls a buffalohead nickel to a customer who found it while browsing in Don’s junk shop. These were nickels with an Indian on the head and a buffalo on the tail, issued by the United States Mint from 1913 to 1938 – so even in the 1970s when the play was written (and presumably still takes place), these coins were not common change. Don was going to sell the nickel for 50 cents, but stopped himself and instead said: Make me an offer. The customer wound up paying 90 dollars for the nickel. Somehow the transaction made Don resentful, suspecting he could have gotten a lot more, so he decides he’s going to break into the customer’s house and steal his coin collection, getting both a big haul and getting the nickel back. He enlists Bobby (Darren Criss) who’s his gopher. But Walter Cole, aka Teacher (Sam Rockwell), convinces Don that he, Teach, would make the better accomplice.
Things go wrong; things turn nasty. Teach calls Don “full of shit.” Don objects. Teach says: “I talk straight to you because I respect you. It’s kickass or kissass, Don, and I’d be lying if I told you any different.” But all of them are liars as well as would-be thieves – or, at least, they seem to be. Part of the challenge to the audience is figuring out who’s telling the truth, and about what.
I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to see these actors in person. They all are familiar screen stars who have given undeniably terrific performances in the past. But the challenge of the roles in “American Buffalo” is for the actors to master the timing of the street poetry in such a way that their performances are thrilling while at the same time their characters are believable as human beings. And only one of the three came close to doing all that for me: Sam Rockwell. Admittedly, he has it the easiest. With a trigger temper, arias of overreaction and a violent streak, Teach is the flashiest part, one portrayed over the years by such actors’ actors as Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman (in the 1996 movie), William H. Macy, and John Leguizamo.
As Don, Fishburne is credible but not especially interesting. Criss feels miscast as Bobby, who is supposed to be young, dumb and desperate. There’s a suggestion of an ersatz father-son relationship between Donny and Bobby, and a throwaway line or two that hint that both were once junkies (Bobby still one) with Teach as their dealer. If the actors played out this subtext of a special bond mixing tenderness and brutality, I missed it.
That could be because of the staging at the Circle in the Square, a thrust stage upon which set designer Scott Pask has built the most cluttered junk shop I’ve ever seen. Director Neil Pepe was certainly diligent in making sure that the actors moved about enough so that the audience seated on all three sides of the theater got at least some opportunity to see their faces, rather than just the back of their heads or the junk shop items. But I wanted more.
It is hard to ignore Mamet’s hard shift to the political right over the last few decades, in particular his recent provocations. He is reported as having appeared on Fox News to discuss the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, saying that “teachers are inclined, particularly men because men are predators, to pedophilia.”
There is an ongoing and honorable debate as to whether, and how much, you can or should separate an artist from his art. But Mamet’s art too has shifted sharply over the past dozen years, with his most recent Broadway plays, “The Anarchist” in 2012 and “China Doll” in 2015, close to incoherent, and “Race” and “Oleanna” in the previous decade seemingly aligned with the reactionary enterprise of “owning the libs.” A question this has raised: How much did critics and scholars misjudge what the playwright was trying to say about his earlier, mostly unlikeable characters? But Mamet has also made it his peculiar mission to forbid productions of his plays from having talkbacks. He’s written in a new book that he doesn’t want to turn “an evening at the theater into an English class.”
So, I’ll resist analyzing “American Buffalo,” avoid trying to figure out whether the original interpretations of it still hold up, given what we now know about Mamet’s beliefs. That leaves me with a production that feels like little more than an acting exercise.
Circle in the Square Theater through
Running time: 100 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Tickets: (Rush tickets $35)
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Neil Pepe
Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, fight director J. David Brimmer
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss
Photographs by Richard Termite