Staging American Buffalo in the woke era of 2022 is a brazen choice. The third Broadway revival of David Mamet’s 1975 play is now open after being put on hiatus in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, nearly two years later, the production playing at the Circle in the Square puts the controversial playwright and his chaotic play about three crooks back in front of audiences during a time when patrons are calling for new and diverse works. What comes of this is a cluttered repurposing of a play oozing with testosterone and woman-bashing that doesn’t hold its weight with the rest of the thoughtful productions open this season on Broadway.
With little action or genuine character connection, but stuffed with foul-mouthed dialogue and some R-rated violence, American Buffalo, under the direction of Neil Pepe (a frequent Mamet collaborator) focuses on trust and dishonesty among male business partners at Don’s Resale Shop. Donny (Laurence Fishburne), the one-note owner of the very cluttered junk shop with possible hidden treasures, works with his two buddies to steal a neighboring customer's coin collection, which includes a rare buffalo head nickel previously purchased from the shop.
The build-up to this heist is slow and painful. For the first half hour of the play, Donny focuses on making sure his pals eat a full breakfast to prepare for the job ahead, and I’m left wondering if the morning pie and coke will be enough to sustain this trio’s botched planning. Donny is a one-dimensional father figure and patriarch who repeats a simple sentence several times ad nauseam. Bobby (Darren Criss), a dry, spaced-out recovering drug addict, appears dense and wildly insignificant.
Earning this review’s extra star is Teach, played by the ultra-talented Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is dynamite at playing bad characters. His character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for which he won an Academy Award, is similar in style and demeanor. Because of previous experience, Rockwell is this show’s saving grace as the only standout career criminal who’s good at cop watching, nervous prancing, and spewing expletives. Though a standout, Teach refers to women as less than, often calling them “c-nt” and “dyke.” In a bold choice, Teach responds to a comment from Donny (who is played by a Black actor) by saying “I am not your ni—er.” In most variations of this play, Donny is played by a white actor; therefore, in this revival, that line should have been cut or addressed by Donny in a smart rebuttal. Instead, Donny doesn’t respond, and the audience is left to gasp.
Circle in the Square has a central performance area enclosed by the audience on all sides. Scenery is usually minimal and carefully positioned in these types of theatres so it does not obstruct the audience’s view or interfere with the actors' movement. But in American Buffalo, Scott Pask's set is a hoarder's paradise. There’s junk everywhere. The set is overwhelming and quite apparent that the actors have a difficult time moving freely around — one bumps into a chair and spills his coffee, and another completely knocks over some foreign item. In a scene where Teach has an angry spat and begins to violently throw everything in sight, nearby audience members can be seen ducking and flinching to be safe from flying objects that land too close for comfort. Dede Ayite’s costume design is practical and cool, and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design stuns in a set that feels monstrous with props.
It’s hard to disconnect the art from the artist, particularly when the art expresses so much of who the artist is. It's also hard to see the point of multiple revivals of this dated work when theatre is tackling topics like racism, immigration, and mental health. This production of American Buffalo doesn’t add any meaningful dialogue to the conversation, nor is it fun to watch.
Photo credit: Laurence Fishburne, Darren Criss, and Sam Rockwell in American Buffalo. (Photo by Richard Termine)