Much about this production of “American Buffalo” boded well. There was elegant symmetry in David Mamet’s most Beckettian play (it’s really “Waiting for Godot” as a heist story) being staged at the Gate, the Irish theater most associated with Beckett. The play’s central critique, of the corrosive power of capitalist values, resonates deeply in contemporary Ireland, bloated and self-satisfied after 15 years of non-stop economic boom. Add in New York-based director Mark Brokaw, who has fared well with American plays previously at the Gate and star Aidan Gillen (“The Wire”), who seems to the twitchy manner born to play Teach, and you had a sexy-sounding package indeed.
That the production is only middlingly successful raises as many questions about the play’s ongoing viability as it does about some odd directoral choices by Brokaw. It certainly features some world-class acting from Irish veteran Sean McGinley as junk shop owner Donnie and rising star Domhnall Gleeson (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) as the spaced-out gofer Bob.
Gillen, too, is squarely in bravura territory — perhaps too squarely. His performance is so self-conscious of its own hyped-up allure that it seems practically postmodern: We’re watching Gillen watch himself play the Teach of a lifetime. This comes across in the archness of some line readings, the way he frequently holds the moment after he finishes speaking, and the ironic way he seems to regard the other characters.
But then again, it’s hard to imagine how any actor could not perform the play’s dialogue as ironic in this day and age. Back in 1975, this extraordinary theatrical poetry helped start a revolution in the understanding and execution of onstage speech. Thirty-two years later, Mamet-speak is a commonplace not just of the theater world but of the culture at large. His speeches now sound almost like imitations of themselves. So how does a director make this material new again?
It may be a search for innovation that explains Brokaw’s choice to play the action at a relatively slow pace, but this does the material no favors. Famously (and Beckett-like), this is a play in which nothing much happens: The men talk obsessively about robbing a coin back from “the guy” who bought it from Don for $90, but never actually undertake the crime.
This inaction, and the impotence it suggests, is one of Mamet’s central points, but one that becomes somewhat lost here in the slowness of the exchanges. That being said, the actors plumb extraordinary depths in the language: a simple exchange (Don: “Things aren’t always what they seem to be.” Bob: “I know.”) somehow becomes a laugh line, McGinley and Gillen’s euphemistic use of “business” and “stuff” is filled with the right combination of bluff and menace, and Gleeson fits a volume of meanings into every repetition of Bob’s simple “I came here” in the final scene.
But however interesting each of these perfs are individually, they do not add up to a fully realized world, nor does the production express a clear point of view on the material or its possible contemporary relevance. The endeavor ends up feeling a bit self-serving, even decadent — a message furthered by Alexander Dodge’s jaw-droppingly detailed and monumental junk shop set.
A lot of money was clearly spent to make this environment look so cheap. The other production values are equally well-observed, if inevitably more low-key: Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting subtly focuses the action and shifts it credibly from day to night, and Leonore McDonagh’s costumes are suitably skanky, particularly Gillen’s sublimely horrible purple polyester slacks.
There are many entertaining moments, and the production provides nostalgic opportunities to reflect on what made the play so important in its day. The larger question it raises is whether the play still retains its ability to comment on society. It’s hard not to suspect it will fade from view, eclipsed by Mamet’s more accessible and conventionally plotted “Glengarry Glen Ross.”