American Buffalo Review: David Mamet Revival Is Starry But Flat

The set of the new Broadway production of “American Buffalo” at Circle in the Square is crammed with unwanted artifacts from recent history. The show’s two acts take place in a relic-crammed junk shop whose smallest gestures toward organization beg to be undone; The place is already turning into a mess, so why not finish the job?

It fits in more ways than this production suggests. “American Buffalo” arrives in its latest Broadway revival laden with much historical clutter that might make it difficult to watch in isolation. Firstly, its reputation as an early highlight in the long career of its author David Mamet and as a testing ground in the key role of petty crook Teach for Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, among others. It also includes Mamet’s recent turn to a strident brand of right-wing political outspokenness, including a recent appearance on Fox News in which he claimed that teachers “are prone to pedophilia, especially men, because men are predators.”

Mamet’s eagerness to participate in a vigorous anti-gay and transgender backlash will likely disappoint those who see works like American Buffalo as a rich and structured critique of how this country’s way of life pits citizen against citizen. And it comes at a less than opportune moment for this show, already feeling stripped of the vitality that marks the best of Mamet. Delayed two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and set in an undetermined cityscape of the recent past, this “American Buffalo” lacks the granularity and specificity to say much, much less for its creator to continue plead relevance.

Here Sam Rockwell struts into the role of Teach, and he at least has a clear idea of ​​his character. Working with Laurence Fishburne’s don on a plan to steal a seemingly wealthy neighbor’s coin collection, Teach is a bantamweight who thinks he’s a thug. He’s an insignificant man who lives on the delusional belief that happiness is his, and his insane fluency is dwindled by the sad knowledge that he’s on the losing side of a rigged system. The play comes alive when Rockwell enters, and the Oscar-winning actor is practically convincing enough to give this production a boost. He has an able scene partner in Fishburne, who gives shopkeeper Don a persistence and authority, a gravity that anchors act two as Teach lashes out and decompensates.

Less effective is Darren Criss, an actor known from TV shows like Glee and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. There is a provisionalism in Criss’ performance that exists parallel to and independent of Bobby’s own nervous energy. Criss seems uncomfortable in the role of the gullible junior partner in the scheme, to the extent that the character feels increasingly out of place. And he’s the only one of the three actors whose flow of speech, which conjures up a world of characters outside of the junk shop’s universe, doesn’t feel entirely real. Sometimes you can feel the actor’s own thinking running ahead of where Bobby is at the moment.

This may be endemic to the production: Director Neil Pepe can overly telegraph certain moments at times. American Buffalo is less about the execution of a plan and more about how its failure tears apart a group of three men who were meant to be allies. But the divergence feels signposted, rigorously forecast. By the time Teach Don mentions a particularly offensive name, for example, we’ve seen him go to the edge of that arc multiple times, in a way that feels less incantatory than just repetitive. Here and elsewhere, it can feel like we’re being carefully guided to revelations that should emerge. For example, the previously predicted shock of Teach’s insult seems to stand in for a more meaningful exploration of how the power dynamics of this play with two actors of color on stage might change. And various outbreaks of violence are awkwardly staged without feeling any real danger – the ultimate desecration of the few order in the junk shop plays out almost like a comedy.

This “American Buffalo” is a closed circuit, too awesome for half its starting material; its second act draws energy from Rockwell and a certain decency from Fishburne, but it also grinds to a conclusion that, when it arrives, feels overdue. There is little room for curiosity on this crowded stage. “American Buffalo” helped make Mamet’s reputation for the shock and novelty of his language, but now — as evidenced by the mere fact that the show is being revived on Broadway — he’s an institution.

Incidentally, this is why Mamet’s words sting more in his real life than those of a casual political expert. And that’s probably why he seems unchallenged by those in his orbit – because his track record is believed to have earned him the right to defy any questioning. But canonical playwrights, if they are to remain at the center of our culture, deserve to have their work transformed, transformed, and presented as alive and vibrant. This renown production demonstrates the way we stage the works of the undisputed greats, without fully convincing ourselves why Mamet is in their league.

https://variety.com/2022/legit/reviews/american-buffalo-review-broadway-david-mametsam-rockwell-laurence-fishburne-1235232931/ American Buffalo Review: David Mamet Revival Is Starry But Flat

Charles Jones

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