‘American Buffalo,’ Explodes in its Third Broadway Revival With Phenomenals Fishburne, Rockwell and Criss
David Mamet’s American Buffalo, first presented on Broadway in 1977 with Robert Duvall as Teach followed with three Broadway revivals. The 1983 revival starred Al Pacino as Teach, the 2008 revival starred John Leguizamo. Eluding the Tony award each time, but garnering multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominations, the 1977 production did win a New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best American Play.
Perhaps Neil Pepe’s direction of this third revival of the American classic, currently at Circle in the Square will bring home a few Tonys. It is a sterling production of Mamet’s revelatory, insightful play about the American Dream gone haywire for a couple of wannabe criminals whose concept of friendship and getting over test each other’s mettle.
The cast is more than worthy to line up with Mamet’s dynamic, vital characterizations. The actors are seamlessly authentic in the roles of Donny (Laurence Fishburne), Teach (Sam Rockwell) and Bobby (Darren Criss). I didn’t want the play to end, enjoying their amazing energy and finding their portrayals to be humorous, poignant, frightening, intensely human and a whole lot more. Their depth, their interaction, their careful interpretation of each word and action that appeared flawlessly real is so precisely constructed in their performances, it is incredibly invigorating and a justification for live theater-why it is and why it always will be.
Mamet’s early writing is strong and singularly powerful as evidenced in American Buffalo. The play involves a string of events that happen over the course of a day in Don’s Resale Shop which is a hazard of incredible junk for the ages, fantastically arrayed by Scott Pask’s talents as scenic designer. The play opens at the height of drama (we think), when Donny upbraids Bobby about the right protocol to take regarding “doing a thing” as a preliminary action in a future plan they will endeavor. Then the developmental action sparks upward and never takes a breath in the crisp, well-paced Pepe production.
Immediately, we note Fishburne’s paternal and fatherly approach to Darren Criss’ innocent, boyish, “not too swift” acolyte into how to be sharp in business and not let “friendship” get in the way. Donny’s mantra relates throughout American Buffalo. As we watch his interaction with Bobby, we can’t help but see the organic humor in their characters which are contradictory and perhaps disparate from us in intention, discourse, values, initially, but are our brothers in humanity, whether we admit it or not.
At the outset it is impossible not to align ourselves empathetically with these acting icons, each of them award winners with a long history of prodigious talent over decades of experience in film, TV and stage. They are a pleasure to watch as they inhabit these characters, that are a few class steps above Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths‘ denizens. LIke Gorky’s underclass, these “higher in stature” nevertheless live in their dreams as they deal with the very real and shabby circumstances of their lives. Thus, junk doyen Donny is the wise businessman who, by the play’s end belies all of the instructions he relates to Bobby at the beginning. And Bobby who intently listens to show Donny how much he is willing to learn to remain in his favor, learns little because he has let Donny down at the outset when he is “yessing” him with wide-eyed reception.
As a counterweight to the teacher-pupil, father-son relationship and manipulation between Donny and Bobby, the manic, feverish Teach throws around his knowledge, experience, street smarts and volatile “friendship.” He is their foil, their activator, their stimulator, their inveterate “loser” with a talent for braggadocio and despondency, and clipped epithets about the other denizens in their acquaintance. He is an apparent backstabber and one to watch as someone who sees themselves as dangerous, but botches his self-awareness and presumption to greatness at every turn.
Rockwell knows every inch of Teach and performs him with gusto and relish. He is integral to this team of exceptional actors that Pepe directs to high flashpoints of authenticity and spot on immediacy. This is collaboration at its best. From the layout of their characters’ plans in Act I to the consequences of the plan’s execution in Act II, the still point of behavior is the crux of what Mamet’s Buffalo presents with crushing ruthlessness.
Examples abound throughout, but are particularly manifest in Act II. It is there that Rockwell’s Teach releases the anger within the character to reveal his self-destruction, self-loathing and disappointments. Rockwell’s Teach lashes out, only to be topped by Fishburne’s essentially kind and fatherly Donny, who erupts like a volcano at Teach in a shocking display of force. The drama in the second act is so alive, so expertly staged by J. David Brimmer as Fight Director, if Teach had moved an inch more slowly than he did, he would have been badly injured by the essentially good-natured but seriously, no-joke Donny. The altercation is a work of art, incredibly precise in its build up of the characters’ emotions, then release.
Likewise, Teach’s explosion against Bobby is devastating in another way. Brutal and exacting, Teach exploits Bobby as his victim. Using him as a backboard to release his fury and self-loathing, he redirects Donny to believe Bobby and another individual have double-crossed Donny and Teach in their plot to steal, undercutting Teach’s and Donny’s deal. Bobby’s attempt is feeble as he tries to verbally defend himself against Teach’s relentless onslaught, borne out by Teach’s years of inner frustration which have encompassed failure after failure. Teach won’t hear Bobby. Enraged at himself and his own assumed victimization, as he spews venom on the double-crossing Bobby and his “accomplice” to incite Donny, his violence crashes in a high, then a low.
Once again, the frenemies are tragic counterparts in a social class that is hurting. Teach’s rage is otherworldly. Bobby’s sorrowful reception of it without fighting back is heart-breaking. Criss is just smashing. I wanted to run up with alcohol and bandages to help stem the external wounds, knowing Bobby’s soul harm is irreparable. Through both brutalizations by Fishburne’s Donny and Rockwell’s Teach, the audience was silent in tension and anticipation. And then the mood breaks and here comes humor and apologies and I won’t spoil the rest.
The togetherness and human bonds displayed are as rare as the American Buffalo head rare coin Donny believes he had and lost. The coin lures the three who are governed by dreams of wealth, like iron pyrite. The resultant failure of their plans, emotional devastation and self-harm is never dealt with. Only Donny’s soothing of the situation is a partial rectification. Interestingly, whatever the type of friendship Teach, Donny and Bobby have will be strengthened by the thrill of the gambit, the crooked deal, the need to “get over” to salve lives that exist without purpose, overarching destiny or moment, except to move toward death, with “a little help from their friends.”
This portrait of Americana is particularly heady and current. Though the play is apolitical, it does speak to class, the macho bravado of making plans and screwing up, the lure of illegality as cool, and the consolation provided by the older wiser individual who the younger men are fortunate to befriend, though he is a subtle manipulator and user, as they all are in the game of “getting over.”
In American Buffalo Mamet suggests this game is as American as the American Buffalo, as American as apple pie, as American as the right to bear arms. Indeed, it is in the soil and the soul of our culture and we cannot escape it, though we may not embrace the ethic and ethos of the “art of the steal,” especially when law enforcement comes knocking. Nevertheless, the play suggests a fountain from which to drink and either be poisoned by the perspective, refreshed, nourished, but never bored. For that reason and especially these acting greats, this production should not be missed.
Kudos to Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design, Dede Ayite’s costume design and all the technical creatives whose efforts are integral to Neil Pepe’s vision for this third revival. For tickets and times go to their website: https://americanbuffalonyc.com/