nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 20, 2008
Contrary to what you may have heard, the new Broadway revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo is pretty good. It features solid performances by a trio of proven actors, a to-die-for set design by Santo Loquasto (designer of the original 1977 Broadway production, incidentally), and a clear-cut take on the material by director Robert Falls. The problem, however, is that Falls's point of view on this celebrated work doesn't necessarily best serve it. For a dramatist as famous and skilled at creating tension as Mamet is, this production of American Buffalo is strangely lacking in suspense.
This could very well be Mamet's fault. Despite its famed reputation, American Buffalo isn't the most solid piece of writing in the world. The plot is simple enough. Donny owns a junk shop in a sketchy part of an unnamed city (presumably Chicago). The shop is frequented by the likes of Teach, a high-strung small-time criminal, and Bobby, a young recovering drug addict. When Donny gets low-balled on the sale of an antique buffalo nickel, he aims to rip off the buyer (who he assumes is an antique coin expert) by stealing his collection. Sensing a potentially huge payday, Teach connives his way into the scheme by talking Donny into letting him perform the heist (ousting the previously appointed Bobby). As they approach the fateful hour, tensions start running high, paranoia takes over, and accusations fly.
Mamet is deliberately vague on his characters' motives, like why Donny thinks this plan is the best way to exact revenge (and why he even wants revenge at all). Or why Teach wants a part of the action. What's in all of this for Bobby? And, what has brought these men to the point where they think this scheme will be the solution to their problems? On a simpler level, Mamet reveals no information about how these men know each other and have reached these respective points in life. It's as if they only exist within the confines of the play's one hour and 45 minute running time.
Plot seems less important to Mamet than character—more importantly, how the characters communicate with each other. The dialogue is written like jazz, with the characters building and improvising off each other. Taken collectively, Mamet's words are like verbal pyrotechnics that illuminate the everyday bonding rituals between men and give us vivid pictures of these characters. Donny is too trusting; Teach is too paranoid; Bobby is too eager to please. That's pretty much American Buffalo in a nutshell.
Falls picks up on these nuances and emphasizes them in his staging. The characters are in constant motion, like dogs sniffing each other out. Falls plays up the little rituals these men share—like who sits in the centrally-placed recliner and when (usually Teach, right when he first comes in), or how one conducts himself while the other is on the phone (Teach incessantly barks at Donny regardless).
What's missing, however, is any sense of urgency—a puzzlement when faced with a dramatist like Mamet, who seemingly places a conflict on every script page. The audience never gets any idea why this particular day is special enough to merit its own play. Rather, Falls directs American Buffalo as if it's just a day like any other for these guys (which it may indeed be, but that in itself doesn't make it special). He does a great job, however, underlining the going-nowhere-fast aspect of these men by placing them in the middle of Loquasto's magnificent junk shop set, which surrounds them with the detritus of human life.
The actors revel in the behavioral details of their roles, though. John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer make a strong tandem as Teach and Donny, respectively, finishing each other's sentences like two people who've known each other for a long time. Both characters feel very lived in by these actors. Strangely, though, Leguizamo's trademark frenetic energy is absent from Teach, a role that requires it. Instead, he goes in a more casual direction. It works well enough for the character, but does nothing to enhance the action of the play.
Cedric, on the other hand, is authoritatively stoic as Donny. His silences say as much as the few words he speaks (they are few in comparison to Teach's motor mouth), and he communicates entire back stories with his behavior—like the no-nonsense way he pockets his cash or the eagerness with which he eats yogurt. A thoroughly impressive performance.
Haley Joel Osment is also on hand providing ample support as Bobby. The role doesn't require much more than standing at the ready to do Donny's bidding and pleading with both men for money, but Osment nails the essentials and keeps up with Leguizamo and Cedric remarkably well.
But the fact remains that this American Buffalo falls a bit short in the conflict department. As an experiment in non-traditional casting, however, this new production is quite a success. None of the actors is an ideal fit for his role, but if you've never encountered this epochal work before then you'll be none the wiser. Kudos to everyone involved for taking a risk this big on The Great White Way, even if it doesn't quite hit the mark.