‘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/
‘Juno and the Paycock’ by Sean O’Casey at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the O’Casey Season Continues
Juno and the Paycock, directed by Neil Pepe. is a powerful and trenchant look at the lives and lifestyles of tenement dwellers in Dublin, impacted by the Irish Civil War (June 28, 1922-May 24, 1923). The production is part of The Dublin Trilogy by Sean O’Casey currently featured by the Irish Repertory Theater. O’Casey’s work is populated by singular characters whose flawed humanity rings with truth and tragedy during the birth pangs of a nascent Irish Republic.
Juno Boyle (in a fine, measured performance by Maryann Plunkett) is the long suffering wife of ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle. Ciaran O’Reilly’s spot-on, brilliant “paycock” is humorous, puffed-up and delightfully roguish as well as “haplessly” self-destructive. Both Juno and Captain Jack have managed to carve out an existence for themselves with the help of their daughter Mary (Sarah Street) and their son Johnny (Ed Malone). However, as the play opens we find that they cannot get out from under the dire circumstances fomented by the various stakeholders who fight for and against the evolving movement for independent Irish statehood.
Johnny (Ed Malone does an excellent job as the peevish, complaining, guilt-ridden son) has been badly injured during the Easter Rebellion. He attempts to disengage himself from his former comrades with the Old IRA which has been reconstituted and has become more purposefully violent in its thrust to move toward an Ireland completely free from the British. Mary (Street is excellent as the demure, naive, gentle daughter) is out on strike with the trade unionists who protest pay cuts and the general approach of the “Free State government” which is aligned with Britain.
From this motley group of family, the only one who works and keeps the household “running” is the assertive Juno. She waits on the “paycock,” Captain Jack, and puts up with his squandering money on drink. But she warns Captain Jack about his friendship with tenement drinking buddy the ne-er-do-well Joxer (John Keating’s reprobate, hypocrite is absolutely dastardly and the perfect foil for Captain Jack). Joxer’s exploitative and free-loading ways Juno dislikes and runs down to Captain Jack because of his evil influence.
Helping her family and short-changing herself, the saintly Juno soothes Johnny by answering to his every need. For example she gets Johnny a glass of water when he asks for it, though he is capable of doing it himself.
O’Casey’s characterizations reveal a group of impoverished individuals (mentally and materially). Their hand-to-mouth existence is continually impacted by the turmoil and chaos of a society fractured by civil war and upheaval. When news of the death of one of his former friends reaches the family, Johnny is on edge and “sensitive” rushing into his room, refusing to hear about the details which his sister reads from the paper. We think that he is going through “PTSD,” however, O’Casey develops the seeds of this unrest during the play. Eventually, they blossom into a dark revelation. By the conclusion O’Casey enlightens us so we understand why Johnny carps and whines about Tancred’s death and the chaos of the Civil War happening around them.
For their part, Juno and her “paycock” have achieved a steady routine. Juno harangues Captain Jack and tries to prevent the family from going into the abyss as she encourages her husband to show up for a job and chides him to stop his drinking bouts with Joxer. All is stasis until Mary brings home a gentleman, Charles Bentham (James Russell in an appropriately “high-minded” and slippery portrayal), a teacher. He brings the information that Captain Jack has come into an inheritance that will lift them from poverty. This grand news transforms their spirits. The job that Captain Jack was going to take is now unnecessary and he settles into his role as the preening “paycock,” full time with no recriminating Juno to excoriate him.
Even Johnny seems to be more cheerful as he hopes that they can move away from the area once they receive the money. With this redemption, Mary who has thrown over Jerry Devine (Harry Smith in a softly sweet and heartfelt portrayal) as a boyfriend, becomes enamored of Charles. They become a serious couple with marriage plans. All appears to be rosy with this “dream come true” scenario, and we, who empathized with their rough and tumble former condition are happy that they have in effect “won the lottery” and will not suffer the indignity and wretchedness of poverty any more.
O’Casey has lured us into their hope for a better life, a hope that all of us experience. This very identification with this family makes the conclusion of O’Casey’s work all the more tragic and heart-wrenching.
At the discovery of their inheritance, the family conflicts subside and these personalities expand despite the chaos in the culture. Captain Jack borrows money against his inheritance as does Juno. For a time, they are floating on clouds of joy as they dance and the couples are at peace, with all distemper ending between and among family members.
Yet, a suggestion of darkness floats in when Charles Bentham describes his belief in Theosophy. His comments give rise to the world of spirits who remain unsettled and without peace. Indeed, he suggests those who are sensitive enough to see into the supernatural may recognize a spirit’s misery and displacement from a peaceful state.
During the discussion Johnny’s emotions unravel. He leaves their company and goes into the bedroom. There, he has an encounter with the supernatural and rushes out of the bedroom. Whether this is his overactive imagination or a spirit coming to plague his soul, a warning, or something else, Ed Malone’s Johnny makes this a harrowing experience. Indeed, in this segment O’Casey suggests there is something that Johnny is deathly afraid of, something no one in his family suspects or knows about.
But like any uncanny, foreshadowing moment, it is easily forgotten and Johnny’s apprehensions are dispelled when it is proven there is nothing alarming or unusual in the room. All is well. Nevertheless, O’Casey quietly grows the seeds he planted at the outset of the play and the tension increases related to the mystery of Johnny’s past involvement with the “Diehards,” the Old IRA and why he has left them.
This tension is carefully, subtly wrought by Pepe’s staging and his precise shepherding of the actors. Our misgivings are confirmed and the pall of death brought in by Mrs. Tancred’s mourning of her son and his funeral convey the shrouds of darkness and doom that overcome the light-heartedness that the family once felt and manifested in song and dance. Each member of the family is enveloped by disaster and tragedy that was foreshadowed at the beginning of the play when Mary read of the Tancred son’s death. Finally, the abyss which Juno had kept from devouring the family, finally comes to call for each of them.
Juno and the Paycock’s stark and tragic human realities of lost lives are realized in this memorable production. It is no wonder that O’Casey was able to write full time after this play was produced at the Abbey Theatre; it is a marvelous work. Our identification with the characters’ downfall is acute and heartfelt. And every foible that threads its way from the beginning in each of the character portraits augments to the point where the civil war in the streets has been manifested internally as a civil war in the lives of each of the family members. For each struggles against their own addictive impulse to destroy themselves in not facing hard realities that can and should be dealt with until it is too late.
O’Casey’s themes about the struggle for survival, lost innocence, the inability to get free of one’s own addictive nature is relayed against the backdrop of war when countrymen fight against countrymen, and those who cannot fight hide and enter into the oblivion of drink. Sadly, the women are left to bury their dead and to mourn, seeking the surcease of sorrow through religion and prayer, which to the men is an inadequate response.
The production shines in the cast’s rendering of O’Casey’s searing portraits of the Dublin tenement-dwellers and their relationships with each other. Included in these not mentioned before are the fine Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Needle Nugent, Una Clancy as Mrs. Tancred and members of the Ensemble (Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy, Michael Mellamphy).
Special kudos go to the creative artists who effected the themes and intentions of the director through their talents and efforts. These include Charlie Corcoran (Scenic Design), Linda Fisher (Costume Design), David Toser (Costume Design), Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design), Ryan Rumery (Original Music), M. Florian Staab (Sound Design).
Juno and the Paycock runs with one intermission. You can purchase tickets at the Irish Repertory Theatre website by CLICKING HERE.