When “American Buffalo” is done right, the profane poetry of David Mamet’s dialogue can be bracing and the sad desperation of its three minor-league crooks — playing at being players — has a poignant sting. But in the three decades since the play was first seen, the influence of its speech patterns has become increasingly pervasive in films, cable TV and imitative theater, while humanized hoodlums have turned up everywhere. Maybe that’s why this starry revival sits so flatly on its impressive set. Or maybe it’s the lack of a connective thread among its performers. Either way, something isn’t working.
Following “Speed-the-Plow” as Broadway’s second Mamet remount this season, “American Buffalo” is generally considered a superior play. But Robert Falls’ production drains much of the humor, urgency and anxiety from the piece, letting it amble along like an inflated actors’ exercise in sustaining atmosphere without action.
This is a play in which very little happens. Spurred by a visit from a customer who slapped down $90 for a buffalo-head nickel, Chicago junkshop owner Don (Cedric the Entertainer) hatches a plan to steal a collection of rare coins. Wanting in on the deal, his volatile hustler buddy Teach (John Leguizamo) persuades Don to shut out clueless junkie Bobby (Haley Joel Osment), whom the shopkeeper treats like an exasperating son.
The robbery never happens, but the shifting allegiances, petty jealousies, inflamed suspicions and gnawing frustrations make this trio of doomed, delusional losers the source of combustible drama. Or at least that’s how it should work. Without the underscoring only suggested in Mamet’s text, the play is all talk.
The three men are distinctly different types — even more so with this production’s multiethnic casting — yet they all inhabit the same world. However much they deceive themselves with their bluff personas and blustery language, that world is a shabby, no-win place — as valueless as the layer upon layer of discarded paraphernalia that lines every nook and shelf of Santo Loquasto’s fascinating but overwhelming set.
Even unseen figures like poker-game regulars Grace and Ruthie or fellow crook Fletch come alive in Mamet’s play, which obliquely but vividly conjures the seedy, underclass world in which these scheming lowlifes are imprisoned by their lack of class, education or intelligence. But if the characters don’t seem to be bristling against their entrapment, the emotional stakes are lowered.
Falls has proven himself repeatedly to be an exceptional director with actors. But while he gets capable work out of all three cast members on the surface, his naturalistic approach is not suited to Mamet’s muscularly theatrical language. The actors too rarely get under their characters’ skins to expose the bitter insecurity lurking there. If Don, Teach and Bobby don’t have at least some nagging sense of the hopelessness of their lives and the impossibility of their big dreams: bye-bye pathos.
Dynamic as he is, Leguizamo’s flashy tricks are part of the problem. There’s neither self-pity nor self-loathing in his vigorous performance, only cocky self-awareness. His twitchy, highly physicalized style is fun to watch and he puts a flavorsome bite on the language. But we’ve seen this macho attitudinizing too often to make us curious enough to wonder what’s underneath. The actor’s work is too mechanical to convey how pathetic the ironically nicknamed Teacher really is — tireless in his search for approval and deeply paranoid beneath his tough-guy facade.
Apart from standup, Cedric is a far less experienced stage actor but his ease and natural command here are remarkable, hinting at some remaining integrity under Don’s weary indifference. And Osment makes Bobby a dim, vulnerable kid, lurking about, timidly looking for guidance while at the same time feeding the uncertainty that he may be shrewder than he acts.
While the individual performers are solid, the surrogate father-son bond between Don and Bobby is inadequately developed. That makes Teach’s behavior toward the kid seem like arbitrary meanness, not the threat of exclusion, and it makes Don’s inaction less wrenching than it should be when he stands by and lets Bobby be brutalized.
The writing’s manic edge can still be exciting and the explosion of violence at the play’s climax still packs a nasty punch. But the production loses sight of some of the deeper meanings behind the botched heist plans and beneath all the words — the impotence of dead-end lives; the limits of honor among men; the competitive nature of friendship; the pitiful aping of “businessman” behavior even on capitalism’s most forlorn fringes; the clumsy struggle for self-respect. With all the current talk about the failure of the free-market economy, the subtext of Mamet’s sly take on commerce should sizzle. Instead, it gets lost in what ends up being simply a character study.
Unlike “Glengarry Glen Ross” three seasons back or even the second-tier “Speed-the-Plow” this year, this hollow revival makes an unconvincing case for the enduring merits of one of Mamet’s breakthrough works.