On Broadway, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino played David Mamet’s two-bit hustler Teach in “American Buffalo,” and did so memorably. It is to Ron Eldard’s credit that he presents an entirely different Teach that is not only absolutely true to the text but forces us (or at least this reviewer) to re-examine the play, now being revived at the Geffen Playhouse.
Having seen Duvall in 1977 and Pacino in 1983, I told myself then that I never needed to see Mamet’s play about three small-time thieves who screw up the heist of a rare coin collection. Why tarnish the memory? At the time, Frank Rich in the New York Times was touting “American Buffalo” as a major indictment of the American dream, and Duvall and Pacino were big movie stars whose driven, volatile screen personas played into that assessment.
Eldard is their polar opposite. He’s not lean and mean, he’s more like a big fleshy kid whose baby fat has congealed in all the wrong places, including his brain. He’s also extremely funny in his pathetic attempts to horn in on the heist that the junk-store owner Don (Bill Smitrovich) has planned with his stoned, mentally challenged gofer Bob (Freddy Rodriguez).
Regarding the American dream, however, Mamet’s characters don’t have the imagination to truly dream, so there’s no tragedy here. Teach, even more than Don and Bob, just wants money and things, and he stamps his feet like a child when he doesn’t get them. Mamet has written a petty character, and that’s what Eldard gives us. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about the soullessness of capitalism, that when it comes to “business” things like “friendship” and “loyalty” just don’t apply. What else is new?
When Duvall and Pacino played Teach, you expected from the get-go for them to erupt in violence eventually. With Eldard, the gun-wielding and the attack on Bob come as a total shock. He’s been a real jokester in his pettiness, not to be taken serious; there’s even a soft sexual ambivalence in the way he talks about “fairies” and “the dyke” and not wanting to be Don’s “wife.” Then he explodes. Equally shocking, after his startling tantrum he’s suddenly back to being as amusingly inconsequential as one of the kitschier objects for sale in Don’s shop.
Under Randall Arney’s direction, Smitrovich makes a good adversary for this Teach. He’s implacable, much more solid than his friend, until confronted with a Teach that even he hasn’t seen before.
Rodriguez, unfortunately, gives a mannered performance, like his reaching for a character that he hasn’t quite found.
Takeshi Kata’s set is filled with the junk of these men’s lives. But does no one ever come into Don’s store to shop? As a playwright, Mamet seems incapable of writing about a community. If he ever wrote about a family, he’d definitely leave out the in-laws.
(Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 512 seats; $77 top)
A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by David Mamet. Directed by Randall Arney. Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; violence designer, Ned Mochel. Opened and reviewed April 10, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS.