Perhaps out of a sense of nostalgia or the unlikely hope for a return to form, every so often Broadway feels compelled to remind theatergoers that playwright David Mamet is not solely the creator of haranguing stage duds like Race and China Doll or the sum of his disturbingly reactionary Fox News appearances. Once a renowned chronicler of toxic masculinity, Mamet has, sadly, come to exemplify the attitudes and behavior he used to dramatically pick apart through melodic vulgarity, biting humor, and brutally sound judgment. Like Samuel Beckett, he gave birth to his own theatrical language, affectionately known as Mamet-speak, using it to enliven men who are decidedly dead inside and giving talented male actors of a certain age the intoxicating opportunity to split the difference.
The 1975 play American Buffalo, now onstage at the Circle in the Square Theatre in a crackling revival, remains the quintessential Mamet experience, the one that should be seen to fully appreciate what has been lost. Essentially a two-hander masquerading as a three-hander, it’s a character study short on plot and long on self-delusion as a couple of small-time crooks imagine themselves as much more than they are while planning an ambitious heist. To say they’re all talk gets to the satirical heart of Mamet’s play.
Though Mamet is certainly punching down in American Buffalo, it’s not the only direction his jabs are landing. He’s also beating the snot out of an economic system that through steady indoctrination turns its most forlorn victims into maxim-spouting adherents before sending them to the ash heap of history or, in Mamet’s less poetic parlance, a junk shop in Chicago. Plopped down in capitalism’s cultural waste, the only mental balm for Mamet’s losers is to make sure others end up just like them.
The play opens in medias res, as Donny (Laurence Fishburne), the junk shop’s owner, is mentoring the sweetly dim Bobby (Darren Criss), filling his would-be protégé’s limited mind with a dead-end philosophy whose hollowness is best epitomized by Donny’s own life. At the moment, that pathetic existence centers on the belief that he’s been suckered out of the play’s titular Buffalo nickel for ninety measly dollars by a high-falutin customer who came into the junk shop recently. It’s a business failure his manhood cannot endure, resulting in an obsessive desire to cajole Bobby into stealing what Donny only assumes to be a prized collectible because of how easily the buyer parted with the cash.
That Donny’s obvious misguidance of the naive Bobby doesn’t immediately register as such is a testament to Fishburne’s fatherly gravitas, which Mamet’s words corrupt, and director Neil Pepe uses to increasingly ominous effect. As for Criss, his acting strengths are largely put to the side, not because of any inability to grasp the role, but, rather, because there simply isn’t much of one to inhabit. Like the audience, Bobby is only present to listen and get knocked in the head.
The pivotal pop comes from the play’s most malignantly masculine character, the ironically named Teach (Sam Rockwell) who strides onto Scott Pask’s set, a meticulously cluttered ode to obsolescence, like someone who has all the answers but never understood the questions. A combination of Adam Smith, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the gutter, Teach is nobody’s friend, much less their mentor. Seeing the chance to line his perpetually empty pockets, Teach, an inveterate grifter, elbows Bobby out of Donny’s plans to pinch the supposedly rare coin and any other nearby valuables.
Decked out by costume designer Dede Ayite in nightmarish 1970’s style–plaid pants with a stretchy short-sleeve shirt tucked to the navel–Teach is cocksure in a way that belies how he looks and what he says. This wretched disconnect would be almost touching, if Teach weren’t so unrepentantly vile. As one might expect from the character’s description, Teach is also the play’s showiest role, and, as always, the preternaturally high-octane Rockwell is up for the challenge of showboating. While Fishburne does a fantastic slow burn throughout the play, Rockwell is the one who impishly blows on the pre-lit fuse until Donny and Teach are both overwhelmed by the fires of impotent rage. Tragically, perhaps that has become Mamet’s fate, too.
Thanks to Pask’s attention to detail, Tyler Micoleau’s downbeat fluorescent lighting, and the Circle in the Square Theatre’s thrust stage, American Buffalo has an uncanny visual realism. But, for anyone old enough to remember the 1970’s or its immediate wake, there is also a more profound sense of déjà vu as, almost five decades later, Donny and Teach seem less like misbegotten products of their time than as archetypes for all time. That’s a depressing thought; so is wondering if Donny and Teach, or any of Mamet’s other characters from his glory days, will ever appear on a Broadway stage again. Here’s hoping Mamet can break free of the role he’s currently crafting for himself.
American Buffalo (March 22 – July 10, 2022)
Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway at W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.americanbuffalonyc.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission