It may be that “American Buffalo” belongs in the junk shop where it’s set — a token of bicentennial Americana with questionable lasting value. Like the novelty coin at its center, David Mamet’s vulgar and compact heist drama no longer carries practical modern-day currency. It has very little, if anything, to say about American dreams and their fallacies that has not been said many times over — and in more broad-minded and sophisticated ways — since the play’s 1975 premiere.
But polished up here by performances from its marquee stars, particularly Sam Rockwell, and through captivating feats of design from its creative team, the revival at Circle in the Square will at least invite those who are curious to linger and turn it over. Whether they buy it will depend on their investment in shopworn fables of American greed, and their taste for motor-mouthed posturing and misogyny.
We’re below street level in Don’s Resale Shop, peering in on capitalism’s bottom feeders. Don (an imperious and tender Laurence Fishburne) is a fatherly businessman, with an especially soft spot for Bobby (Darren Criss), who runs errands for cash to chase his next fix. When they hatch a plan to steal back a rare coin that Don sold for too little, his gambling buddy Teach (Rockwell) convinces him that Bobby is too green for the job. Would there be a moral to the story if it didn’t all go awry?
Fishburne’s Donny is grounded and stabilizing, like the gravitational pull that draws all three men toward the promise of money. There’s a decency and kindness to Fishburne’s characterization that endears us even to Don’s base instincts — which, if we’re being honest, most everyone shares. (Who doesn’t want what they think is rightfully theirs?) As Bobby, Criss seems a little out of it, which may be just as well for a strung-out pawn trying his best to be a player.
Rockwell saunters with a casual command as Teach, roving the shop, picking up this and that, words piling up like ugly-pretty trash at his scuff-loafered feet. He leafs through the paper, dons boxing gloves and gives the air a one-two punch, chucks a rag doll on the table. His Teach is witty and vain, a comb protruding from the back pocket of his too-slick slacks, which he constantly hikes up with his thumbs (the richly telling and spot-on costume design is by Dede Ayite). Rockwell is rangy but precise, drawing out humor in the everyday ticks of an amateur con who’s not as smart as he thinks.
On their own, discarded objects have a useless and melancholy air. Together, their shuffle of shapes and textures can have a cumulative, nostalgic appeal. A mish-mash of chairs and glowing light fixtures hangs suspended above the shop, while a fortress of cast-offs — lamps, dishware, magazines — rises on three sides of the thrust stage. The scenic design from Scott Pask, an impressively intricate study in the material of life, cleverly positions viewers behind and among the detritus, implicating us in the system that determines its worth. Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau lends a warm atmosphere to the cool pursuit of cash.
Beyond the bungled burglary plot, which is straightforward (and predictable), the substance of Mamet is in the talk. Under the direction of Mamet’s longtime collaborator Neil Pepe, Fishburne and Rockwell are engrossing, agile sparring partners, and there’s satisfaction in observing well-matched pros face off in a flurry of language.
But the ugliness in Mamet’s talk is not just stale and cheap, it’s onerous and inexcusable. Women — none of whom, of course, appear on stage — are “chicks,” “broads,” “dykes,” and other epithets less decent to print. The thieves’ mark is a “fruit” and a “cocksucker.” It’s true that our culture has grown more sensitive to hateful speech spit at anyone who isn’t white, straight or a man (go figure, and thank progress for that). It’s also true that Mamet’s bigoted pen serves scant artistic purpose here, other than to reveal its keeper’s own character.
Because talk on stage is one thing, in this case, foul hot air that’s only grown more sour with age. But an artist’s talk in the public square — like Mamet’s recent claim on Fox News that teachers “are inclined” to pedophilia — does harm to real people. Never mind the confession that he believes “men are predators,” which further flattens those he’s written for the stage. Such clear expressions of delusion and ignorance make easy work of separating treasure from trash.
“American Buffalo” opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on April 14, 2022.
Creative: Written by David Mamet; Directed by Neil Pepe; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau.
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Steve Traxler, Stephanie P. McClelland, GFour Productions, Spencer Ross, Gemini Theatrical, Chris and Ashlee Clarke, Suna Said Maslin, Ted & Richard Liebowitz/Cue to Cue Productions, Patty Baker/Good Productions, Brad Blume, Caiola Productions, Joanna Carson, Arthur Kern, Willette Klausner, Jeremiah J. Harris & Darren P. DeVerna, Van Kaplan, Patrick Myles/David Luff, Alexander Marshall, Ambassador Theatre Group, Kathleen K. Johnson, Diego Kolankowsky, Steve and Jacob Levy, Morwin Schmookler, Brian Moreland, Jacob Soroken Porter and The Shubert Organization.
Cast: Darren Criss, Laurence J. Fishburne III and Sam Rockwell.