Items go up or down in value depending on demand and scarcity, and condition is a major factor in determining worth. These lessons are embedded into the script of David Mamet’s 1975 play “American Buffalo,” about small-time hustlers planning a heist of rare coins. Perhaps, these same lessons should have been heeded before giving this dated, oft-performed work is fourth Broadway production, now at Circle in the Square under Neil Pepe’s workman-like direction.
In 2022, Mamet’s views about toxic masculinity and man’s inherent distrust of each other are old news (even as the author himself remains in today’s headlines), his profanity-laden dialogue no longer has any of the shock value (which it must have had nearly 50 years ago), and his staccato rhythms have begun to sound like self-parody. Arguably, Mamet still has something vital to say about how the working-class lives, thinks and talks -- but it’s a message that feels out of place when being presented to people who paid over $100 for a ticket to hear it.
Moreover, the show’s slight plot and repetitive dialogue– no matter how well-acted – doesn’t always keep our attention, especially when it’s competing with Scott Pask’s amazing re-creation of a 1970s junk shop for which he seemingly scoured every flea market and thrift store from here to Sacramento. Whenever your mind wanders, and it will, you can easily focus on that lava lamp or vintage clock and think about redecorating your dwelling.
You’ll also wonder periodically how much of the bric-a-brac will end up on the floor during the long stretches of the play when the volatile, hot-headed Teach – portrayed by a volcanic Sam Rockwell in the show’s standout performance – is prowling the shop’s floor. Deeply misogynistic, probably racist, and possibly downright misanthropic, Rockwell’s Teach (costumed in appropriately ridiculous 1970s duds by Dede Ayite) uses both a non-stop barrage of (often nonsensical) words and ever-present threat of mayhem to get what he wants.
Specifically, Teach wants a piece of action in the ill-conceived heist being planned by sometimes avuncular, sometimes gruff shop owner Donny (a commanding Laurence Fishburne, whose talent feels under-utilized here), who seems less motivated by greed than revenge against the unseen consumer who may have cheated him when purchasing a Buffalo nickel.
Teach also wants – mostly for ego – to cut out anyone Donny wants to team up with on the gig, from the never-seen Fletcher to the in-and-out-of-the-shop Bobby (Darren Criss), a seemingly dimwitted young man that Donny feels protective of and who Teach is somehow threatened by. Bobby is the least well-drawn of the characters, but Criss gives a dedicated and affecting performance.
If there was a “blue book” for plays, as there are for coins, I suspect one would see quite a drop in value for “American Buffalo” since its premiere.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, Darren Criss
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