Offstage, and sometimes on, David Mamet can be infuriating and exasperating, as anyone who has witnessed his recent nonsensical, offensive media blitz can attest, and then along comes something like American Buffalo – possibly his greatest work, all due apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross – with a cast so in sync with the playwright’s “profane poetry” that for a couple hours it’s not impossible to put aside whatever it is Mamet thinks needs saying on Fox News these days.
Superbly performed by Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss, with director (and longtime Mamet collaborator) Neil Pepe finding every comic beat and threatening glare, American Buffalo – opening tonight on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre – retains a vitality that eluded some recent equally starry revivals of works by Mamet’s bad-boy contemporaries (here’s looking at you, True West).
First performed in 1975, American Buffalo was instantly notorious for Mamet’s then-novel rapid-fire cadences and casually strewn vulgarities, and it still packs plenty of both. The stuttering, overlapping rhythms no longer startle – the style was co-opted and spread far and wide ages ago by just about every post-Sopranos crime show on premium cable – but they do thrill, at least when done with the panache on display in this production.
The vulgarities, too, remain. If the F-bombs don’t shock, the misogynist and homophobic epithets certainly do, perhaps more than ever. When Rockwell’s ill-tempered Teach refers to an (offstage) lesbian couple in degrading terms – a concentration camp is mentioned – the words sting regardless of the fact that Teach is speaking the lingua franca of his shoddy milieu (and certainly regardless of his oft-stated and seemingly sincere fondness for the couple). In the world of American Buffalo, everything from a maybe-rare coin to friendship becomes just another entry in life’s ledger of who owes whom, and cheats, imagined or genuine, will bring down the harshest of judgements.
The setting is a Chicago junk shop – wonderfully designed by Scott Pask, who turns Circle in the Square’s famous thrust stage into an overstuffed graveyard of life’s throwaways – owned and operated by Donny (Fishburne), an aging tough guy whose past is revealed mostly in the running crouch he assumes whenever the lights of a cop car flash outside his store windows.
Though a stern and no-excuses kind of guy, Donny seems to have a fatherly affection for his sorta protege Bobby (Criss), a young, recovering junkie who helps out around the shop doing odd jobs that might involve picking up coffee or casing a home for something more nefarious: Bobby is keeping tabs on one of Donny’s customers who purchased a Buffalo-head coin the other day. Convincing himself that the customer got the better end of the deal, Donny has determined to burgle the guy’s home to retrieve the item.
Enter Teach. And what an entrance: Rockwell storms into the shop boiling mad over some silly slight he’s convinced himself that the gay women might (or might not) have directed toward him. Long before Tarantino was obsessing over Royales with Cheese, Mamet had Teach stewing over a piece of toast that one of the women seemed to begrudge him.
Whether it’s his toast-related foul mood or just a hair-trigger demeanor in general, Teach quickly latches on to the burglary plans concocted by his old pal Donny, and he wants in on it. And he wants Bobby out, convincing Donny that the kid is too green for such a job. Donny agrees, but only if they can invite another friend – the never-seen Fletch – to come along.
The second act picks up later that night, when Donny and Teach are waiting at the shop for Fletch to show. Instead, Bobby arrives, with a Buffalo coin to sell and some half-baked story about Fletch being in the hospital. The ever suspicious Teach convinces himself – and this time Donny – that Bobby and Fletch have done some backstabbing by carrying off the burglary on their own.
The famously explosive final scene, when debts are tallied and accusations made, reveals the violence that’s been lurking beneath all the low-rent capitalism – all capitalism, the pre-Trump Mamet might have suggested – and no one is spared. In the punishing, dog-eat-dog world of American Buffalo, there are no winners, just the less-bloodied.
CYRANO DE BERGERAC
Think you’ve had enough Cyrano de Bergerac lately? Think again. Jamie Lloyd’s Olivier Award-winning production of the Edmond Rostand classic, starring James McAvoy in one of this theater season’s most riveting performances, is opening tonight in its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it’s a stunner.
With writer Martin Crimp “freely” adapting the Edmond Rostand classic – akin to how Lin-Manuel Miranda freely adapted Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton – this modern-dress Cyrano doesn’t so much strip away Rostand’s fluffy neo-romanticism as scuff it up with black leather, slam poetry and vocal beat-box rhythms.
The plot is faithful, if the visuals require imagination: The handsome McAvoy, looking buffer and sexier than ever in a tight black t-shirt and skinny jeans, has us believing within minutes that he is, indeed, the physically disadvantaged, lovesick poet-warrior that typically requires a glued-on proboscis to pull off.
Under Lloyd’s direction and Crimp’s pen, Cyrano is nothing so much as an alternately joyous and heartrending celebration of language – even the sword fights are rendered with nothing more than pointed words. Every line of dialogue, expertly delivered not only by McAvoy but a large and flawless ensemble, is either a delight, an arrow, or both, from era-defying comic asides (“This’ll work,” whispers Cyrano, “I’ve seen it in a film with Steve Martin”) to a wrenchingly gorgeous profession of love rendered truthfully yet in deception. “I can’t speak, I can’t stop speaking,” McAvoy all but whispers in a show-stopping soliloquy. “I can’t stop looking, I can’t look, I make you an object, I desire you, I write to you, I write for you, I tear up everything I have ever written for you or about you, I burn myself alive for you, I worship you, I strip you, I clothe you, I do up the tiniest buttons at your sleeve, I embrace your wrist, I embrace your neck, I kiss the back of your neck, I embrace your wrist, I’m speechless, speechless,allIcansayisIwant―Iwant―Iwant ― there is no poetry ― there is no structure that can make any sense of this ― only I want ― I want ― I want ― I want you, Roxane.”
Lloyd manages to fully match the textual poetry with spare, elegant visuals – a white-box stage, sumptuously lit – and actors often facing the audience while delivering the most heartfelt sentiments, as if turning toward one another would tip them into madness. At one point, a secondary character begins to paint seemingly random marks on a rear, blank wall. Letters slowly begin to take shape, calligraphy-style, unnoticed by the other performers. The audience sees it, but the preoccupied Cyrano, Roxane (Evelyn Miller) and Christian (Eben Figueiredo) never take notice, busy as they are with living it. The message reads: “I Love Words. That’s All.”