Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

American Buffalo

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 14, 2022

American Buffalo by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau . Fight director J. David Brimmer.
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss.
Theater: Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue - at 50th Street)

Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne
Photo by Richard Termine
The fourth Broadway mounting of David Mamet's 1975 play American Buffalo, opening tonight at Circle in the Square Theatre, proves once again that this is essentially a one-man show which happens to have three characters. Unless you've got the right actor in the central role of Teach, a small-time hustler with outsize dreams, you are in for a skimpy evening indeed, as was true of the very short-lived prior Broadway effort in 2008. Fortunately, this latest outing can rest easy. The role of Teach is in mighty fine hands, with Sam Rockwell confidently taking over the reins previously and masterfully held by Robert Duval (1977) and Al Pacino (1983).

Plot-wise, American Buffalo is pretty thin stuff. Indeed, almost nothing happens in the first act, which serves largely as a set-up for Act II. That's a pretty risky gamble for a play that, without its intermission, runs about 90 minutes. So you better believe that a lot is riding on Act II and what absolutely has to be a thrilling performance by whoever plays the tightly wound character of Teach.

The play takes place in a Chicago store with the gentrified name "Don's Resale Shop." But a more accurate designation might be "Don's Junk Shop," because it really is just one step ahead of the junkyard, filled with every sort of trash and discarded household goods imaginable. Scenic designer Scott Pask seems to have had a blast in taking on the task of filling the Circle in the Square's challenging horseshoe-shaped performance space, crowding every inch with a lifetime of discards and ephemera.

Darren Criss
Photo by Richard Termine
Ah, but among the broken toasters, lava lamps, and other assorted oddments and bric-a-brac, there apparently was one modest treasure, a possibly valuable old buffalo-head nickel that the store's proprietor, Donny (Laurence Fishburne), didn't even know he had. I say "was," because it's gone by the time the play opens. A customer noticed it in a display case, haggled a bit with Donny over the price, and purchased it for $90. Seller's regret has settled in, however, and Donny begins to hatch a scheme to steal it back. His partner in crime will be the play's third character, Bobby (Darren Criss), a relatively innocent and none-too-bright young man Donny has taken under his wing as his gofer and acolyte.

It's pretty clear that, left to his own devices, Donny will probably drop the whole idea. He is generally content with scamming customers and playing the occasional game of poker with some of the other neighborhood denizens, whose company he craves even if they do cheat at cards. We never actually meet these others, but we hear a lot about them, especially the women, in crude and angry rants from Teach.

Though underscored by casual jokiness of the random, non sequitur variety, a tension begins to fill the air from the time Teach waltzes into the shop and decides that he, and not Bobby, should work with Donny to steal not only the vanished nickel but what he imagines will be a life-changing treasure of a coin collection.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot, about a heist that can never happen, despite Teach's bravado (ominously, he is packing a gun). No one has a genuine clue as to how to pull this off. What intrigues is the interplay among the three characters, all of whom are dreamers. Donny and Bobby generally understand the difference between dreams and reality. Fishburne is especially good at evoking Donny's increasing anxiety as the time of the would-be heist approaches. And Bobby's ambitions rarely go deeper than cadging a few dollars from Donny now and again.

But for Teach, this is the door to the next level. He will no longer be a two-bit swindler, but a man who commands respect. It is a thrill to watch Sam Rockwell chomping on the role. Sporting a bushy moustache and dressed in Dede Ayite's wonderfully cheap-looking costumes, Rockwell's Teach looks like a cross between a third-rate thug and a would-be gigolo as he paces the floor like a caged tiger, grabbing at every piece of paraphernalia in the place as if he were thinking about buying out the joint.

More, even when he has nothing to say, he says plenty, favoring aphorisms that almost make sense, a con man's Yogi Berra. "If I kept everything my old man threw out, I'd be a wealthy man today," and "Friendship is friendship and a wonderful thing and I'm all for it, but let's keep it separate. OK? Let's keep the two apart and we can deal with each other like some human beings." For all his pomposity and bravado, Teach is a bundle of nerves himself, stretched to his limits. Before the play ends, blood will be spilled, dramatically and possibly even predictably, but not out of keeping with the nervous-comic mix that marks the entire enterprise.

The strange spiral of David Mamet's public life that has led him, most recently, to making outrageous remarks suggesting that male teachers are often pedophiles, is in keeping with a character named Teach, a man who is likewise prone to making audaciously offensive comments. In truth, this is something Teach might have said himself if he had thought of it. But whatever personal connection there might be between playwright and play, it is Sam Rockwell who gloriously occupies that role and makes this production of American Buffalo a most memorable theatrical experience.