Oh dear. On his good days, Davis Mamet is a lot to take in, and that’s with actors who know what they are doing and a director who knows what’s needed, neither of which applies to this production of American Buffalo.
David Mamet is a Gatling gun writer. His characters know who they are and who they are talking to so they skip the punctuation and go for that shorthand we all know but rarely see on a stage. Words blast out of his characters and assault whoever is in the room, which usually includes the audience. You often get the feeling that the characters define listening as Fran Leibowitz’s does: they are “waiting for the other person to stop talking.” Mamet characters are, however, listening to themselves all the way.
In this current production, nobody is listening to anybody, least of all themselves. What they are listening for is the audience. The cast is playing for laughs, and the pathos of this tale is lost in the effort.
The play is the story of a heist gone wrong. Actually it doesn’t go wrong so much as it rolls over and fizzles out. The owner of a junk shop, Don (Cedric The Entertainer), has been visited by a guy who buys an American Buffalo nickel off him for $90. Back in the days of Fresca, 37-cent coffee to go, and the lady on the phone who told you the time, this was not chump change. Don, however, believes he sold too low and has been ripped off, so he is planning on stealing back the nickel in question. His young friend Bobby (Haley Joel Osment) is going to be in on the deal by default. Bobby is a gofer, always around and needing attention. Into this setup stomps Teach (John Leguizamo), and I do mean stomps.
Soon the setup for the coin’s retraction goes south. Bobby is out, and Teach is in. Then even that plan stumbles, which is the only thing it can do considering the people involved.
It is a sad, intricate tale, and the devil is in the details. This is not about plot – this is about people. Teach preaches the benefits of quality, loyalty, and knowledge, which are so rare. Bobby is present because Don is the only person who tolerates him. Don lives surrounded by junk and calls it treasure. The only reason we want to watch these people is that the text asks them to peel themselves down to their innards in front of us.
This cast never comes close. This is more like a line-through, where the actors have put down their scripts and are focused only on remembering their lines, not bumping into the furniture, and ending up where they are supposed to be at any given moment.
It doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. But these actors are trying to get a response, not pull us into their world. That's not surprising when you think about the fact that Leguizamo’s strength on stage has been in his solo shows. He barges around the stage as if he has just snorted something unworldly and is having trouble understanding that he is here on earth. Cedric the Entertainer is a stand-up comedian, and Haley Joel Osment has spent his short career in television and movies. Neither of them knows what to do in a conversation that lasts more than a few moments. This production was hobbled from the starting gate.
Maybe I’m prejudiced because I saw American Buffalo with Robert Duvall umpty-ump years ago. I can tell you where I sat and with whom I went; it was written to get to you in that way. And if you are going to resurrect what has become a classic, then you'd better treat it right. This production is cavalier at best – right down to the plastic liner in the wastebasket, which Donny would never have had, and the fact that nobody smokes. A 1970’s junk shop in Chicago would have been an ashtray in itself. Here there was no smoke and no fire.
American Buffalo by David Mamet; directed by Robert Falls. WITH: John Leguizamo (Walter Cole, also known as “Teach”), Cedric the Entertainer (Donny Dubrow) and Haley Joel Osment (Bobby).
Sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; technical supervisor, Larry Morley; production stage manager, Robert Bennett; general manager, Peter Bogyo. Presented by Elliot Martin, Ben Sprecher, Louise Forlenza, Bryan Bantry/Michael S. Rosenberg, Nica Burns/Max Weitzenhoffer, Wendy Federman, Boseman Group LLC, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Karl Sydow, Jay Harris, William Franzblau, Oscar Joyner, Ken Wydro/Vy Higginsen, Ray Larsen and Nelle Nugent, in association with Max Cooper and Norton Herrick. At the Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6262. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.