How funny to think that a new play by David Mamet was once a source of fervent anticipation. After suffering through The Anarchist, The Penitent, China Doll (China Doll! A play written solely so that one character could brain another with a model airplane!) the impulse now is to cower somewhere safe until a run has ended. It isn’t that these recent plays were so disturbing – if only – but that they weren’t really plays, just thin veneers of words barely covering the whine and grumble of complaint. Were some of these words four-letter ones? Of course. It’s the Mamet way. Yet the language, like the contrarianism, has long since calcified into a pose – the lactic acid building and building and building the longer the pose is held.
Still, there was a time before – when the writing felt fresh, brash, defiantly alive, a way to inject sedate theaters with the rhythms of the streets. Maybe those rhythms were phoney even then. Or maybe Mamet’s current provocations (he was on Fox News this week, arguing that most teachers are inclined to pedophilia) have poisoned even the back catalog. How else to explain the absence of menace or pity or recognizable human feeling in the finely acted Broadway revival of American Buffalo, directed by Neil Pepe at Circle in the Square?
The setting for American Buffalo, designed deliriously by Scott Pask, with lighting by Tyler Micoleau, is a mid-70s dusty junk shop somewhere in Chicago’s grimier precincts. It’s presided over by Donny (Laurence Fishburne), who is joined by a dim-witted errand boy, Bobby (Darren Criss), and a brassy hanger-on, Teach (Sam Rockwell). When a customer buys a buffalo nickel, a coin Donny had dismissed as worthless, for $90, the men concoct a plan – as watertight as leaking bucket – to steal it back.
There is pleasure, of course, in Fishburne and Rockwell’s performances. As Donny, Fishburne keeps his voice low, his eyes hooded, his physicality contained until it isn’t. Fishburne’s natural clout lends Donny gravity; his sensitivity to Mamet’s rough jazz offers the character a kind of grace.
Rockwell, by contrast, is all sound and tweaked-out fury, twitching, preening, puffing out his meager chest as he clomps around the space, combover flapping in the breeze. Teach thinks he’s smooth, but he’s a serrated knife, cutting into anyone who brushes against him. As Bobby, a man many cards short of a full deck, Criss seems to be playing the dimness rather than inhabiting it, and the performance feels thin.
American Buffalo feels thin, too. And sour. Like a cup of diner coffee left to cool. It’s a showcase for actors. But what really is it showcasing? It’s a play about men who feel that life has done them wrong. The way they speak of others – women, queer people, “Mexicans” – suggests that they believe they are owed more, that they are possessors dispossessed, that the American dream is their birthright, even if they never do much to make that dream come through. They fight over scraps – imagined scraps at that – and then they fight one another. Back in the day, there used to be a lot of indignation over Mamet’s language and whether it heralded a coarsening of American letters. The language, it turns out, wasn’t the coarse part.