The set of the new Broadway production of “American Buffalo” at Circle in the Square is choked with the unwanted artifacts of recent history. The show’s two acts take place in a junk shop glutted with relics, one whose barest gestures toward organization are just begging to be undone; the place is already sliding into disorder, so why not finish the job?
It’s fitting in more ways than this production may anticipate. “American Buffalo” arrives at its latest Broadway revival laden with a great deal of historical clutter that might make it hard to see on its own terms. This includes, first, its reputation as an early high point in the long career of its author David Mamet, and a proving-ground, in the key role of small-time crook Teach, for Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, among others. It also, lately, includes Mamet’s turn toward a strident sort of right-wing political outspokenness, including a recent Fox News appearance in which he claimed that teachers are “inclined, particularly men because men are predators, to pedophilia.”
Mamet’s eagerness to join in a vivified backlash against gay and trans people will likely come as a disappointment to those who see, in works like “American Buffalo,” a rich and textured critique of how this country’s way of life pits citizen against citizen. And it comes at a less-than-apt moment for this show, which already feels emptied of the vitality that characterizes the best of Mamet. Delayed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and set in an indeterminate urban landscape of the semi-recent past, this “American Buffalo” lacks the granularity and specificity to say much of anything, let alone make a case for its creator’s continued relevance.
Here, Sam Rockwell struts into the role of Teach, and he, at least, has a clear idea of his character. Teach, who is working with Laurence Fishburne’s Don on a plan to steal the coin collection of a seemingly wealthy neighbor, is a bantamweight who thinks he’s a bruiser. He’s a petty man living with the deluded belief that fortune is his by right, his mad flow of speech skittering away from the sad knowledge that he’s at the losing end of a rigged system. The play jolts alive when Rockwell enters, and the Oscar-winner is practically compelling enough to buoy this staging. He has an able scene partner in Fishburne, who brings a stolidity and authority to the store owner Don, a gravity that anchors the second act as Teach flails and decompensates.
Less effective is Darren Criss, a performer known from TV shows including “Glee” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” There’s a tentativeness in Criss’ performance that exists parallel to and apart from the character of Bobby’s own nervous energy. Criss seems ill at ease in the role of the simple-minded junior partner in the scheme, to the degree that the character feels increasingly out of place. And he’s the only one of the three actors whose stream of language, conjuring a world of characters outside the universe of the junk shop, doesn’t quite feel real. One senses, at times, the actor’s own thinking racing ahead of where Bobby is at any given moment.
This may be endemic to the production: Director Neil Pepe can, at times, telegraph certain moments unduly. “American Buffalo” is less about the execution of a scheme than about the ways its going wrong tears apart a group of three men who ought to be allies. But the coming-apart feels signposted, rigorously forecast. By the time, for instance, Teach calls Don a particularly offensive name, we’ve seen him walk right up to the edge of that slur several times in a manner that feels less incantatory than just repetitive. Here and elsewhere, it can feel as though we’re being carefully guided towards revelations that ought to pop. The previously-forecast shock of Teach’s insult seems to stand in for, say, more meaningful investigation of how this play’s power dynamic might change with two actors of color on the stage. And various outbursts of violence are staged awkwardly, with no real sense of danger — the eventual desecration of what little order existed in the junk shop plays almost like comedy.
This “American Buffalo” is a closed circuit, too reverent by half of its source material; its second act derives energy from Rockwell and a certain sort of decency from Fishburne, but it also grinds on toward a conclusion that feels, by the time it arrives, overdue. There’s little room on this jam-packed stage for the dazzle of curiosity. “American Buffalo” helped to make Mamet’s reputation through the shock and novelty of his language, but now — as evidenced by the mere fact that the show is being revived on Broadway — he’s institutional.
This is, incidentally, why Mamet’s words, in his real life, sting more than a random political pundit’s. And it’s likely why he seems to go unchallenged by those in his orbit — because it is perceived that he has earned the right, through his track record of success, to defy questioning. But canonical playwrights, if they are to remain central to our culture, deserve to see their work altered, changed, presented as vivid and vital. This production, laden with reputation, demonstrates the way we stage the works of the unquestioned greats, without quite convincing us why Mamet is among their league.