American Buffalo review: Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne shine in David Mamet's classic
Two questions hang over the characters of American Buffalo, David Mamet's iconic 1975 play now in its third Broadway revival. First: Am I being ripped off? Second: Am I ripping off other people enough? Though the novelty of the playwright's trademark fast-paced, profanity-laced dialogue has worn off a bit amid the passing decades and sprawling imitators, these concerns feel as relevant to contemporary American life as ever.
It helps that such questions are being wrestled with by acclaimed actors of the stage and screen — especially since the confines of American Buffalo leave little room for error. The two-act play takes place in a single setting, a Chicago junk shop, and features only three characters. Laurence Fishburne stars as Donny, the shop owner; Darren Criss is Bobby, his loyal but misguided errand boy; and Sam Rockwell plays Teach, a poker buddy of Don's with a huge chip on his shoulder and a foul mouth to match.
The inciting incident of the play, which we do not see but hear much discussion about, involves a coin collector coming into the shop and buying an old buffalo nickel. Donny was able to get $90 for the coin, an impressive profit for an ostensibly 5-cent piece, but he can't shake the feeling that he could have charged the guy even more. To make up for this mistake, Donny and Bobby plan to steal the coin back and sell it to someone else for a bigger profit. But then Teach walks in and overhears just enough of their machinations to feel left out of a potential get-rich-quick scheme. He insists on being involved, then elbows out Bobby, and even harangues Donny about looping in anyone else lest the take be diluted further. Those two questions — am I being taken advantage of? am I taking advantage of others as much as I should? — seem ever on his mind.
Teach is clearly the showiest part of the play's trio, and Rockwell digs in with relish. His high-waisted pants and prominent mustache scream "the '70s" in all the best ways, just as his many insults (racist, homophobic, and everything in between) reflect the worst. The experience of watching American Buffalo is essentially the experience of listening to Teach talk: At first, like Donny, you're dazzled by the endless flow of braggadocio and confidence. But the longer the play goes on, you realize the words are mostly an empty excuse for Teach to always keep everyone's attention on himself. After all, no one offends him more than the unseen lesbian couple who are too interested in each other to spare him much notice.
The narrow confinement of the proceedings underlines the nature of the dialogue; the characters are both walking and talking in circles. It's therefore appropriate that this production (like the 1981 revival that starred Al Pacino as Teach) takes place at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, which wraps the audience around the stage of Don's shop. The set is beautifully packed to the brim with old relics: Lamps, chairs, and the occasional tricycle hang from the rafters, while the stage floor is filled with faded sports trophies, worn paperbacks, stuffed animals, and other knickknacks that can probably only be spotted from specific seats. It might all be junk, but it's also a fascinating reminder of the much more physical universe people lived in before the advent of the internet. It's easy to feel alienated in a virtual world of NFTs and crypto scams — but then again, as American Buffalo demonstrates, even when everything was physical, people were still constantly trying to get one over on someone else.
As the shop's proprietor, Fishburne is warmly believable as a man simultaneously confident enough to offer Bobby life lessons and insecure enough to be swayed by Teach's various lies. American Buffalo works like a tea kettle: With nowhere else to go but the junk shop, the characters' various disagreements and misunderstandings can't help but build up to a boiling point. After welcoming you into the play with his can-do attitude, Fishburne ultimately plays that climactic boil best.
Holding one's weight against Fishburne and Rockwell in these modes can't be an easy task, and unfortunately Criss underwhelms a bit in comparison. Bobby is certainly the least-developed character of the three, and doesn't have as many opportunities to employ the colorful profanity that is Teach's bread and butter. But Criss' performance doesn't add much to explain why Bobby behaves the way he does, which is frustrating considering that the character's actions provide American Buffalo with its key turning points.
When American Buffalo first premiered decades ago, Mamet's language was the main attraction. But the price of influence is dilution. In the 21st century, the dialogue in everything from Spider-Man comics to Judd Apatow movies is written in imitation of Mamet's fast-paced style, and curse words are no longer so alarming (which might explain why the playwright now provokes audiences by spouting absurdities on Fox News). In this era, the attraction offered by reviving American Buffalo is not just the dialogue, but getting to see these actors deliver it. Rockwell and Fishburne are definitely worth the price of admission.
American Buffalo opens April 14 at the Circle in the Square Theatre and is playing a 16-week limited engagement through July 10. Grade: B