Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 17, 2008
American Buffalo by David Mamet. Directed by Robert Falls. Set and Costumes by Santo Loquasto. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Cast: John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer, Haley Joel Osment.
Leguizamo's borderline-annoying back-alley whine and sensuous-with-a-smack attitude are close-fitting contrasts to the little-boy-lost innocence Osment hasn't shed in the nine years since he rose to stardom in the film thriller The Sixth Sense. Cedric the Entertainer is just the right bridge between the two, evincing some of Leguizamo's world-weariness and some of Osment's unquenchable hope: the glued-in-place realist caught between two men lost in very different fantasies. Each of them becomes a conduit by which we unveil the others, and by extension the wasteland world their characters occupy.
The place has an official name: Don's Resale Shop. But really it's a home for people, like objects, that have been unceremoniously cast off from life and are hoping to be given some new sense of purpose. For the store's owner, Donny Dubrow (Cedric the Entertainer), it's legitimacy in an illegitimate world. For Walter Cole, aka Teacher (Leguizamo), it's the confirmation that good things sometimes happen to bad people: the rare buffalo nickel Cedric recently sold to a coin collector, but which Teacher has a plan to reaquire. For the kid, Bobby (Osment), an addict with something to prove, it's confirmation he's on par with the big boys - and maybe their moral superior. But as they see it, the world doesn't welcome nobodies, thugs, or dreamers - it merely tolerates them.
Mamet's language is, and has always been, part and parcel of this fringe world. When the play premiered in 1975, it stunned, captivated, and in some cases outraged audiences who wanted to believe even the dregs could do, and speak, better. It's not just that the words are coarse - often of four letters, practically never of four (or, for that matter, three) syllables - but that they outline a coarseness it's easier to pretend doesn't exist. Seldom before had the use of the plucked-hair underbelly of the popular vernacular elevated people straight into the gutter.
It's a style so common today, we no longer think about it. But Falls and his actors obviously have, and their solution is itself almost revelatory: Pay no attention to it whatsoever. Unlike in most Mamet productions, including the revival of Speed-the-Plow at the Barrymore, the actors aren't even trying to spit out their words trippingly down their tongues. The people they're playing are too far gone for that. They can't deliver - they can only exist.
As Donny, Teacher, and Bobby plot to liberate that nickel, they're not charged with the electricity of a life-changing moment in the making - they're going through the steps of another scheme doomed to fail before it starts. You might occasionally see a glint of hope flashing behind Donny's eyes, a ghostly echo of Bobby's buoyancy (is he trying to keep from sprouting roots?) suggesting Donny's willing to entertain the possibility his ship might have at last come in. But Teacher's uncompromising grasp of reality, as filtered through Leguizamo's bracingly abrasive performance, does not let such illusions linger for long.
So cunningly cast are the actors, and so adept are they at wringing a touching story of redemption from these men in their own personal economic crisis (which mirrors the current one facing the United States with haunting acuity), that it's a shame to have to report the work's grander colors are muted. But because we so richly understand, and can focus on, the characters as sensitive victims of circumstance, the part of the play that sees these men in a greater societal context suffers. You never feel this time around that the three are giving representative voice to a suffering underclass, but that they are, like so many items in Donny's shop (designed with cluttered, claustrophobic detail by Santo Loquasto), only alone and unloved.
There's nothing wrong with that interpretation, but it's heavy-duty insulation for Mamet's typically electric writing. The language never feels less than natural in these actors' mouths, but for them words are shields more often than weapons, which leads to some conflict that feels more cursory than it should. Leguizamo's portrayal is the most inherently desperate and violent, and thus sparks more vividly and frequently than does Osment's or Cedric the Entertainer's. But you never see the brave, brash facets he displayed in his solo shows Freak and Sexaholix... a love story, and which would seem at least as at home here.
Those, after all, are what you'd expect from him and Mamet in general, and Falls and his actors are determined to give you anything but. Because the characters' juicy conviction is mated with crippling malaise, recasting but not wholly renovating the loss and pain at the center of the play, American Buffalo stings the heart now the way it undoubtedly once did the ear. But you can't help but wonder while watching this production whether a few tiny jolts of unpredictability - or maybe one large one - wouldn't make all well-carved naturalism just a bit more real.