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.
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.