After the play transferred from a successful run off-Broadway, where most of his modest-sized plays had hitherto been performed, Mamet found himself swimming with the sharks on the Great White Way.
Audiences then responded to Mamet’s foul-mouthed vision of the American dream as a double-sided buffalo nickel. Now, as our economy takes a downward turn, theatergoers likely have the same fears, but the question is whether or not Mamet’s vision withstands the test of time.
As presented in its second Broadway revival, American Buffalo proves a tricky play to pin down. On the one hand, the playwright’s signature sparring matches are on ample display (verbal spitfire is Mamet’s hallmark), full of fiery, vibrant language. On the other hand, without the likes of Robert Duvall or Al Pacino in the leading role of Teach (here played by John Leguizamo), the holes in the paper-thin plot seem all too apparent.
The play concerns a trio of ordinary con men – Donny (Cedric the Entertainer), Teach (John Leguizamo), and Bobby (Haley Joel Osment) – at first glance like any other Joe the Plumber, rough around the edges and spewing the coarsest possible language (those who take offense to the F- or C-words should stay home).
Donny, who runs the junk shop that serves as the play’s only location, has recently sold off a valuable buffalo nickel, presumably for an under-market price. Realizing his error, and because of a tip-off from Bobby as to the whereabouts of the buyer, Donny initiates a scheme to reclaim the coin by means of breaking and entering.
The plan is on-again-off-again as the characters negotiate the terms of the heist and are interrupted by the injury of an off-stage friend, but the plot (despite Donny’s early assertion that “action counts”) is less important than the characters’ broken ambitions, which ought to be at the forefront of any production of this play.
The problems with this production fall largely in the hands of two individuals, director Robert Falls and John Leguizamo. Falls has taken the opposite approach to Neil Pepe’s similarly problematic direction of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow (where Pepe seems to have directed the actors to hurry up and spit out the dialogue as quickly as possible). Here Falls asks his actors to linger too long over Mamet’s cutting dialogue. Though Mamet’s quintessentially American quips dazzle when they’re precise and character-driven, here they’re given too much room to breathe; as a result Mamet’s terse language is stretched flaccid.
While this approach is occasionally well-suited to Cedric the Entertainer’s even-keeled, wise-man approach to the character of Donny, Leguizamo’s Teach suffers as a result. His portrayal has the verve of Al Pacino at his nervy on-screen best (Pacino played the role in the 1983 revival) but is missing the emotional undercurrent that would give the character’s sound and fury something weightier to signify.
Santo Loquasto’s set, rather than the actors, ultimately dominates the evening. Surrounded by towering shelves brimful of assorted items – wig display mannequins, lamps, pots, and pans – the characters seem comparatively small, as if children futilely lost in a strange department store full of chintzy materialistic baubles.
But even if (as Leguizamo does with bombast midway through the second act) the actors topple the racks and attempt to break free of their constraints, the dramatic resources aren’t there to pick up the pieces. What’s left is a symbolic mess, which Mamet posits is part of life’s inevitably faulty reality. But without the cast or direction to ground this lofty conjecture, it’s ultimately a dud, a buffalo nickel one looks up in a coin collectors’ guide only to find its worth, no matter the condition or age, is nothing more than its apparent value: five cents.