The Broadway Review: American Buffalo
Putting behind the disconcerting comments that Mamet is seemingly now making, appearing recently on Fox News, of all places, claiming that teachers are “inclined” to pedophilia (What the F*ck?), as he has, most disturbingly, swung more right-wing as of late, I tried my best to take in the third Broadway revival of his stellar play, American Buffalo with an open mind to the well-known piece of theatrical art presented here at Circle in the Square. Third time’s is not exactly the charm here though, even though the cast delivers and the piece is presented as if it is worthy of an authentic American masterpiece.
The history of this 1975 play is legendary, having first premiered in a showcase production in Chicago, and two more showcases before it opened on Broadway in 1977 featuring Robert Duvall in the role of Teach, Kenneth McMillan as junk shop owner, Donny, and John Savage as Donny’s young simple-minded employee, Bobby. Numerous revivals have since graced the Broadway stage, with one starring Al Pacino as Teach. Pacino’s production first played Off-Broadway at the Circle in the Square (Downtown) in 1981 before opening at the Booth Theatre in 1983 to numerous Tony Award nominations. William H. Macy played Teach in a Donmar production that transferred to the Atlantic Theater in 2000, and Cedric the Entertainer, Haley Joel Osment, and John Leguizamo starred in a second Broadway revival that infamously closed after only eight performances. I’d love to know what happened there.
Yet, it’s no surprise that so many great actors have wanted to dig into these three unique parts, especially the iconic role of Teach, now being played by one of my all-time favorites, Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell (“Fosse/Verdon”; Broadway’s Fool for Love). It’s a wonderfully complex part that twists and turns his way around the cluttered junk shop owned by Don, currently played strongly by the wonderful Tony Award winner Laurence Fishburne (Broadway’s Two Trains Running), with the talented Emmy winner Darren Criss (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace”; Hedwig) rounding out the cast. The three circulate around one another like game pieces, feeding on each other’s energy on a cluttered and overly designed space by Scott Pask (Broadway’s The Prom) that is never fully utilized to its full potential. The aisles of junk become an obstacle, not just for many of the audience members trying in vain to get a clear unobstructed view, but for the actors themselves consciously working their hardest to spread their wings in this limited environment.
With impressively articulate costuming by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s Slave Play) and strong lighting by Tyler Micoleau (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), the play, once heralded for his critiques of capitalism, doesn’t seem to find its way to the same level of greatness that many anticipated when it was first announced, and then delayed for two years because of the COVID lockdown. The actors, in general, find their frame, unearthing aspects of their characters that feel solidly authentic, but somehow lack a drive that informs us of the play’s relevance.
Laurence and Rockwell strut forward as expected, digging into the meat of the matter with a clever vitality. They connect and engage like agile players in a competitive game of checkers (but not chess), formulating a plan to steal back a valuable coin that Don unwittingly sold to a well-off neighbor. He feels he’s been gypped, swindled out of some cash for selling the piece for too little, as he never really knew its true value. Their internal imbalance of who they think they all are and what they are entitled to, compared against what their actual weight and worth are played well and true, while Criss does a fine job playing an eager simpleton that is desperate to impress his Teach. It definitely doesn’t go down how any of them thought it would.
The plot lingers on though, giving us a feeling that this should somehow be a one-act play, yet it has been stretched out to two. Whenever Rockwell enters the room, the electricity becomes amped up as he has “the skill and the talent and the balls” to arrive with a full self-deluded force, yet the second act’s destruction still feels somewhat weightless and predetermined. “All I’m saying,” is that the spark never truly lights the fire, and the violence, danger, and miscommunication feel forced and unnatural. American Buffalo flips itself over, finding its way to the finishing line respectfully, but even with the language being as rich and sharp as you would expect from David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross; Speed-the-Plow), as directed by Neil Pepe (ATC’s On The Shore of the Wide World), the production lacks a forceful drive and a sharp spark to make it feel needed or of-the-moment.