By Margret Echeverria
No matter what you think of David Mamet and his politics, you cannot deny that he is often blessed by the casting gods with actors who breathe his dialogue as naturally as oxygen. American Buffalo opens in a re-sale shop where the owner, Donny (Laurence Fishburne), and his protege, Bobby (Darren Criss), are engaged in a lively mentoring conversation. The teasing out of Mamet’s unique banter is a little slow as these actors let the words color their characters like cream swirls in your morning coffee. When Teach (Sam Rockwell) bursts through the shop door, the engine becomes fully fired, engaging us in a story of citizens made second class by poverty and exploiting the only paths available to them – lies, cheating and stealing.
The set, designed by Scott Pask, is a prop master’s nightmare piled high with nostalgic objects. Through my KN95 mask, I could smell the dust and hope for fortune hidden in the questionable treasure. This Friday morning, Donny has determined to go after some rare coins owned by a collector – “The Guy” – whom Bobby is supposed to be tracking. The Guy came into the shop yesterday, discovered, and bought an old buffalo nickel. Donny hatches a simple plan to relieve the mark of his entire collection, but Teach spins the plan like Rumpelstiltskin, cutting himself in and Bobby out of the deal. Rockwell is absolutely enjoying himself as he spreads the fire under Fishburne and Criss bringing the ensemble to a steady sizzle. The first act flows so magically that I didn’t even go downstairs to pee during intermission as I willed the lights to go back down . . . and I’m fifty-two.
In classic Mamet style, the second act has us wondering who is telling the truth and who will outwit the others to pull off the job while undoubtedly cheating the other two. These three chuckleheads, wound up by Teach to an insane level, are like project managers in the corporate world. They have never worked in the field they are managing, but believe passionately that they can simply imagine what steps are needed to lead the team to victory. The only difference between Wall Street and these schemers is that no one is going to pay them handsomely for their delusions.
There is genuine desperation in these characters that is relatable for anyone who has struggled against odds. And each cares what the other two think of him. There are attempts at deception laced heavily with guilt and the ache of having to believe in something just enough to not die without hope or at least some entertainment. We are entertained as every nugget of humor is squeezed out of the writing. Donny tolerates Teach’s self-aggrandizing speeches with a palpable affection and a lot of yelling. Fishburne’s voice and tone is commanding on a note that is just a little too consistent. However, the chemistry among all three actors is helmed by Rockwell whose listening is so specific that he convinces us that he is experiencing every moment as new. Therefore so do we. Brilliant.
Criss gets us in the heart, reminding us of that sweet dumb kid we knew in high school who we knew just wasn’t going to make it. He is the precious son who’s mother weeps because he doesn’t know it’s okay to just be a good person.
And the costumes, People! Plaids and stripes combinations under jackets that I know smell like Great Lakes rain, motor oil and sweat, along with shoes ignorant of the ensembles they are meant to complete. These touches by Dede Ayite.
After spending a couple of hours with this ensemble, you may leave wishing the story felt more complete, but its Mamet, so better not to expect that. The brilliant acting and the sublime direction of Neil Pepe will leave you gratified.
AMERICAN BUFFALO by David Mamet directed by Neil Pepe
WITH Laurence Fishburne (Donny), Sam Rockwell (Teach) and Darren Criss (Bobby)
Sets by Scott Pask, Costumes by Dede Ayite, Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Run time is one hour and forty minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street in the Paramount Plaza building, thru Sunday, July 10. Get tickets here.