Everything but the funny fumes seems to have evaporated from David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” which returns to New York in a sadly hollow new revival from the Atlantic Theater Co. With a valiant but sorely miscast William H. Macy playing the jittery, volatile grifter Teach, and Philip Baker Hall offering a gruff but bland Donny, the play runs on empty for the entire first act, and only fitfully sputters to life in the final, wrenching minutes.
Although it is among Mamet’s most acclaimed and widely seen plays, this production reveals just how much “American Buffalo” relies on the particular abilities and aptitudes of its actors to bring out its subterranean power. On the surface, Don and Teach are pathetically inept petty criminals, colorfully sleazy lowlifes whose plans to steal a possibly imaginary cache of rare coins are risibly hopeless. Their talk is circular and numbingly mundane — at times almost a parody of meaninglessness.
But beneath the tinfoil bluster of their words are black reservoirs of insecurity and bitterness and alienation that are only hinted at obliquely in Mamet’s scabrous, profane dialogue. When Don casually insists that Teach bring back the buffalo nickel he’d sold to the proposed target, it’s because that nickel means more than just money to him. It’s a symbol of his lifelong status as a dupe, a loser — it was the one valuable thing in his used-goods universe, and he’d had no idea of its value. He wants it back so he can prop up his sagging self-respect, but perhaps also so he can hide his shameful ignorance away in a dusty corner of his junkyard life.
Throughout the play, the actors must put the bruised flesh on the scrupulously bare bones of Mamet’s words, and it’s here that director Neil Pepe’s production falls short. Macy, along with Mamet a co-founder of the Atlantic, created the role of Bobby in the original production of “American Buffalo,” and he’s a veteran Mamet ally. But he’s not exactly in the mold of previous performers who’ve made a mark in the role, including Robert Duvall in the first Broadway production in 1977 and, most famously, Al Pacino in a 1981 Circle in the Square revival that later played Broadway.
A subtle character actor with a sad-sack, milquetoast persona used effectively in movies such as “Fargo” and the recent “Magnolia,” Macy lacks the seething emotionality and the menacing physical presence that’s needed to invigorate the role and the play. He’s a pallid, soft-sell Teach, and when the character turns violent in the play’s latter half, you’re not sure whether the visible effort involved is the actor’s or the character’s.
That effort, along with Macy’s sardonic sotto voce hints of self-awareness, brings a certain deeper pathos to the character. This Teach is a would-be desperado who scarcely seems to believe his own big, bad talk, so stilted does it sound in his gray monotone. But this can be heard in Macy’s voice and read in his watery eyes from the play’s opening minutes, so Teach’s emotional crumpling, literally crowned by his humiliating exit in a ludicrous hat made from a newspaper, lacks the force it should have.
And the rapport between Teach and Hall’s Donny subsists at a low voltage throughout the play, although Hall is a more natural fit in the role of Don, the paterfamilias of this junk-shop family, which also includes the sweet-natured Bobby, played naturally and effectively by Mark Webber. Hall, too, is an actor of considerable resources, but here he seems so intent on locking into the demanding rhythms of Mamet’s dialogue that the role’s deeper levels are scarcely explored. Don’s profound fear of betrayal, which leads him to momentarily see the guileless Bobby as a Machiavellian schemer, doesn’t register strongly; nor does his remorseful tenderness toward the boy. (Coincidentally, this production brings to four the number of stars from “Magnolia” currently in high-profile revivals of twentyish-year-old shows in New York. Both Macy and Hall appeared in that picture along with “True West’s” Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. All we need now is Tom Cruise in, say, Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July.”)
It’s somehow emblematic of the production that the actors sometimes seem to fade into the overpowering clutter of Kevin Rigdon’s set, piled high with authentically useless-looking used goods. There’s a certain aptness in that, too, of course — Don and Teach are forgotten people all but swallowed up by the squalor they’re so desperately trying to escape — but it’s not a very dramatically appealing irony.
All that’s left to savor in this “American Buffalo” is the play’s comic set pieces — Teach’s dumbbell telephone antics, the Abbott and Costello maneuvering between Bobby and Don over money. They register surely, and Mamet’s writing still has its dazzling moments, but the tarnish of raw feeling that gives “American Buffalo” both its energy and its significance seems to have been scrubbed away in this production.