Legit Review: ‘American Buffalo’

On Broadway, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino played David Mamet’s two-bit hustler Teach in “American Buffalo,” and did so memorably. It is to Ron Eldard’s credit that he presents an entirely different Teach that is not only absolutely true to the text but forces us (or at least this reviewer) to re-examine the play, now being revived at the Geffen Playhouse.

Having seen Duvall in 1977 and Pacino in 1983, I told myself then that I never needed to see Mamet’s play about three small-time thieves who screw up the heist of a rare coin collection. Why tarnish the memory? At the time, Frank Rich in the New York Times was touting “American Buffalo” as a major indictment of the American dream, and Duvall and Pacino were big movie stars whose driven, volatile screen personas played into that assessment.

Eldard is their polar opposite. He’s not lean and mean, he’s more like a big fleshy kid whose baby fat has congealed in all the wrong places, including his brain. He’s also extremely funny in his pathetic attempts to horn in on the heist that the junk-store owner Don (Bill Smitrovich) has planned with his stoned, mentally challenged gofer Bob (Freddy Rodriguez).

Regarding the American dream, however, Mamet’s characters don’t have the imagination to truly dream, so there’s no tragedy here. Teach, even more than Don and Bob, just wants money and things, and he stamps his feet like a child when he doesn’t get them. Mamet has written a petty character, and that’s what Eldard gives us. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about the soullessness of capitalism, that when it comes to “business” things like “friendship” and “loyalty” just don’t apply. What else is new?

When Duvall and Pacino played Teach, you expected from the get-go for them to erupt in violence eventually. With Eldard, the gun-wielding and the attack on Bob come as a total shock. He’s been a real jokester in his pettiness, not to be taken serious; there’s even a soft sexual ambivalence in the way he talks about “fairies” and “the dyke” and not wanting to be Don’s “wife.” Then he explodes. Equally shocking, after his startling tantrum he’s suddenly back to being as amusingly inconsequential as one of the kitschier objects for sale in Don’s shop.

Under Randall Arney’s direction, Smitrovich makes a good adversary for this Teach. He’s implacable, much more solid than his friend, until confronted with a Teach that even he hasn’t seen before.

Rodriguez, unfortunately, gives a mannered performance, like his reaching for a character that he hasn’t quite found.

Takeshi Kata’s set is filled with the junk of these men’s lives. But does no one ever come into Don’s store to shop? As a playwright, Mamet seems incapable of writing about a community. If he ever wrote about a family, he’d definitely leave out the in-laws.

American Buffalo

(Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 512 seats; $77 top)

A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by David Mamet. Directed by Randall Arney. Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; violence designer, Ned Mochel. Opened and reviewed April 10, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With: Ron Eldard, Bill Smitrovich, Freddy Rodriguez.

Popular on Variety

Legit Review: 'American Buffalo'

More Legit

  • Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    One constant of David Byrne’s long and prolific career is his ability to grow a seemingly simple idea into something brilliant, whether it’s the melody of “Road to Nowhere” or the concept of the “Stop Making Sense” tour some 36 years ago, where the premise of bringing out nine musicians, one at a time per [...]

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content