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Theater Review (NYC): American Buffalo by David Mamet

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American Buffalo, David Mamet’s breakthrough play currently in an excellent revival at the Belasco Theater, may be a better source of explanation for the current economic crisis than you can get from any economist. Every exchange in the play has business on the mind; in the world of Donny, Teach, and Bobby, even friendship breaks down into business. The overwhelming sense of mistrust among these closest buds ultimately results in disaster on both the business and personal level.

American Buffalo is a tragicomedy, but all the play’s comedy comes from the humanizing effect of the word “fuck.” All the play’s tragedy results from the perils of the phrase “I don’t know.” On the television show You Can’t Do That On Television, uttering the phrase "I don't know" got you slimed. In the world of the petty Chicago crooks of American Buffalo, which could also be called You Can’t Do That in Business, uttering the phrase will get a gun pulled on you, or worse. Forget your economics textbook; try messing with Teach with a porous economy of information.

american buffalo broadway mametI’ll admit that when the cast of American Buffalo was announced, I was a bit frustrated. Not so much about the stunt casting of Hollywood stars who fit the roles but had no theatrical experience. I was more upset by the missed opportunity to see the poetic beauty of grizzly old white men on Broadway, a thrill that few but Mamet can provide anymore (where have you gone, Lawrence Tierney?).

But was the highly anticipated Broadway revival of arguably Mamet’s greatest play ill equipped for the task? Fuck you, this is David Fucking Mamet we’re talking about. Everyone involved in this production knows that this is too good of an opportunity to mess up, and though things are played relatively safe, everyone holds his own. Things are kept tight thanks to the direction of Robert Falls, a sensible director who, as the current Artistic Director of Mamet’s own Goodman Theatre in Chicago, was the only sensible pick for the job.

Keeping things in line is no small task with any Mamet play, but especially with American Buffalo, which may be the tightest, most definitive Mamet play, even now, over 30 years and 20 plays later. Every beat is concentrated into three actors, any of whom can throw the play off the rails at any time with a single stumble. The demand for that kind of precision is why, despite the star power of John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer, and Haley Joel Osment, the real star of this production of American Buffalo is Mamet himself. That emphasis is portended by a pre-show reminder on behalf of Mamet to “turn off your fucking cell phones,” the most effective strategy I’ve seen yet. In terms of the star power, I predict that even those complete theater novices who come merely for the celebrity factor of the actors will leave the theater thinking “this Mamet guy is pretty good.”

american buffalo broadway john leguizamoLeguizamo, the biggest stage star of the production, is given the most free reign by Falls, in a role that Leguizamo not surprisingly nails.  Teach’s mix of cockiness, explosiveness, and thinly-veiled vulnerability are all motifs that Leguizamo has explored extensively on stage in the past. The dialogue in his one-man shows may as well have been Mamet's. My only complaint was the drug-dealer costume Leguizamo was given. Cedric the Entertainer, whose best roles have been as paternalistic, straight-talking sidekicks, translates his onscreen persona naturally to the stage. Save for a couple of hammy moments, Cedric makes for a nearly flawless Donny.

The real X-factor is Haley Joel Osment as the hard-edged but incompetent Bobby. Osment, whose starry-eyed image and acting chops staked his name in films like The Sixth Sense and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, had become tainted in recent years with tales of teenage drunken escapades. Here, Osment reinvents himself from the preppy, puppy-eyed kid to the slummy, hard-talking young ingrate, and the transition is surprisingly successful. Some of Bobby’s naïvete mirrors past Osment roles, which helps ease the actor into the role. While it’s not a perfect transition, Osment does more good work here than most would have expected (included wisely deciding to keep facial hair for the role).

american buffalo broadway mametAny discussion of Mamet’s legacy can no longer avoid the laissez-faire conservatism and resentment of the left that Mamet recently espoused in his controversial Village Voice piece “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” back in March. At that time, especially following the lack of sophistication in his latest Broadway smash November, it was becoming popular to dismiss Mamet’s importance. Sure enough, Mamet followed that piece with Redbelt, arguably his best movie of the last fifteen years, and he is now seeing two of his classic plays get Broadway revivals.

After seeing American Buffalo for the first time after the “brain-dead liberal" piece, I've found it’s simply impossible to dismiss Mamet’s vitality. It’s also hard to see how anyone could have assumed Mamet to be a true-blue liberal in the first place. What liberals saw as a reflection of the breakdown of American idealism in American Buffalo, Mamet saw as “just business.” Business can be awful, cold, and frequently destructive, but it’s the core of all human interactions. The story of the breakdown in American Buffalo mirrors the breakdown of the American economy: when crooked businessmen lack the information they need to do business properly, the lack of trust can only lead to disaster. Rather than see this as a product of a broken system, Mamet sees the outcome of American Buffalo as an inevitable consequence of the economic system America is based on: in Teach’s words, “The freedom…of the individual…to embark on any fucking course that he sees fit.”


American Buffalo by David Mamet. Directed by Robert Falls; Set and Costumes by Santo Loquasto; lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

Starring John Leguizamo (Teach), Cedric The Entertainer (Donny), and Haley Joel Osment (Bobby).

American Buffalo is being performed at the Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th Street. Tickets can be purchased at telecharge.com.

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About Ethan Stanislawski