“There it is. I’m finished,” says a Mormon businessman pushed to desperate extremes in the second of three one-act plays that make up the triptych of human tyranny otherwise known as Neil LaBute’s “Bash.” Such are the vagaries of London legit programming that the remark could be responding directly to the no less utterly depleted no-hoper, Teach, at the rotting core of “American Buffalo,” the David Mamet revival that followed LaBute’s English stage premiere by 24 hours. “There is nothing out there,” Teach concludes matter-of-factly — but also resonantly — at the end of Mamet’s often-revisited 1975 play. “I fuck myself,” he goes on, and so LaBute’s characters do, too, but not before doing the same (metaphorically speaking) and far worse to others.
An Anglo-immersion in abuse, American-style? You got it: Rarely, if ever, has London opened two so directly comparable plays and productions as part of an ongoing (and ad hoc) season of American work in London that so far this year has also included local premieres of Nicky Silver’s “The Maiden’s Prayer” and the Tony-winning musical “Fosse” and continues later this month with “Side Man” and, in April, to “Wit.”
But what distinguishes the past week’s back-to-back openings — beyond their writers’ grim thematic affinities — is a thoroughgoing American-ness that extends to the British debuts of two respected New York directors, Neil Pepe and Joe Mantello, alongside the presence of six American actors, at least five of whom are unlikely to be thought of as household names. (The exception: the film world’s increasingly invaluable William H. Macy, who way back when was the first-ever Bobby, the young junkie, in the Chicago bow 25 years ago of Mamet’s play, and has now graduated to the catalytic role of Teach.)
It’s perfectly fine, of course, for London to host Jessica Lange, Kevin Spacey and, still to come, Kathleen Turner. But how doubly sweet that it can showcase, among others, the amazing (and, yes, London-trained) Zeljko Ivanek, while allowing for the professional stage debut of Matthew Lillard, the “Scream” alum who induces inner screams on his own — quite brilliantly — as Ivanek’s post-intermission successor in “Bash.” For once, London is seeing American legit talent on something near the grass-roots level well before film-acquired expectations of greatness have been permitted to get in the way.
As the calendar would have it, and without either evening presumably anticipating this result, the two shows make up intriguing parts of a theatrical jigsaw that — once completed — acts as a near-perfect case of yin and yang. Who cares that this is the second “American Buffalo” in London in the past three years, with Al Pacino’s West End visit from 15 years ago still a vivid memory? Mamet’s career-defining play remains a masterfully charged piece of writing, even in a tentative Atlantic Theater Co. staging (headed next for New York) that — at the moment, after far fewer previews than Off Broadway would sanction —-must be seen as a production-in-progress.
“Bash,” on the other hand, could have taken its authorial cue from the title, with LaBute bashing the audience over the head with aberrant behavior to a degree less revelatory than (in the last play, certainly) near-pornographic. But what theater lover would possibly skip a pitch-perfect production from Mantello containing three performances arguably far more complicated than the script they are servicing? The point is, each evening prompts cavils as well as cheers while forming joint halves of a welcome whole allowing American sounds their own authentic voice abroad, no matter how nasty the noises they make.
Truth to tell, the level of scabrousness at which “American Buffalo” operates is what one misses from Pepe’s surprisingly shallow account of three men inhabiting a junk shop who constitute so much human debris themselves. Kevin Rigdon’s delightfully cluttered set is less delightfully packed with heavygoing symbols (presidential portraits, among them) testifying to a land that has reneged on notions of leadership, where we — like the characters — all lose out.
If Mamet’s thesis is bitter, the production settles for belly laughs, an approach that is fine as far as it goes — which is not very far at present. Where is an awareness of the stakes for which Mamet’s three hapless anti-heroes are playing, as they bungle a coin heist that threatens to make brutes of them all? “Without this, we’re just savage shitheads in the wilderness,” we are told in a crucial remark pointing to the thin (and possibly blood-red) line that separates man and beast. But as if taking its cue from Macy’s slicked-haired, definably small-time Teach, the production is a comedy of bungled manners that has yet to cast a chill. “I understand nerves,” says Teach, though the interim report on this “American Buffalo” is that the staging doesn’t.
No such problems arise at “Bash,” which has been entirely recast following its sellout run last summer Off Broadway, subsequently reprised in Los Angeles. I didn’t see the earlier cast (Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard, Paul Rudd) but can’t imagine a better trio than the one on view in London, even if the largely self-deluded speakers of LaBute’s terrible tales make one yearn for a touch of Alan Bennett’s artistry as a monologist. In the opening, and weakest, playlet, “Medea Redux,” Mary McCormack surmounts the fundamental staginess of the preordained conceit to suggest the imbalance of the modern-day Medea alluded to in the title — with the difference that this participant in mankind’s walking wounded exacts her revenge far later in her child’s life than the witchlike Medea ever did.
The second (and best) piece finds Ivanek working his own ghostly sorcery on a riven man — think of him as a middle-management Teach — trying to shrug off an abiding shame that closes in on him by the end. The play’s ironies may be writ large (this fellow is “finished” in every sense), but Ivanek finds a miraculous economy in his account of a child-murderer whose heartiness leaves him unhinged. Singing a tune from “Alfie,” he’s got a bonhomie Willy Loman might recognize, accompanied by a descent into an interior hell that leaves him choked up in sorrow and absurdity. Abetted no end by Mark Henderson’s crepuscular lighting, Ivanek evokes a living death by way of Eliot: He’s one of that poet’s “hollow men” rewritten by a modern-day playwright whose portraits of hell possess their own hollowness.
From there, it’s on to a cock-of-the-walk turn from Lillard as the college kid-turned-Central Park gay-basher that couldn’t be more theatrically cunning. At the start, the actor is all bravado, modeling his Perry Ellis attire for the audience (“Looks OK, doesn’t it?”) even as a passing reference to Britain is met with the fleeting (and hilarious) miming of a posh afternoon tea. Indeed, Lillard cuts the figure of a man so irresistibly high on himself that one is less shocked by the turn of events than angered at the crassness with which the writing shifts gears, since Lillard — for all his bravura — couldn’t inhabit the part more subtly. That is equally true of McCormack as his (unwitting) sidekick, her creamy complexion prompting its own implicit rebuke to “those kind of people” among whose venal ranks, of course, she is the rankest of members.
To that extent, these characters are worse than Mamet’s, who at least bear the curse of something approaching self-knowledge. But amid the evening’s often obvious ironies, one happier one endures — that emptily flashy writing about misdeeds so base should bring to London an American creative team that rivals the best.