A New American Buffalo

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:33

    American Buffalo By David Mamet American Buffalo, David Mamet's first two-act play, received mostly lukewarm reviews when it appeared in 1975. Within a decade?after several high-profile productions and a film starring Dustin Hoffman?it helped establish his international reputation. This play and Glengarry Glen Ross (written in 1983) were the works that ultimately changed many people's minds about Mamet, demonstrating that his habitual themes of deception and betrayal weren't merely the crotchets of an angry young Pinter-epigone but rather essential aspects of a coherent artistic vision encompassing American culture as a whole. Junkshop-owner Don (Philip Baker Hall), lord of a seedy and cluttered bric-a-brac den in Chicago, plans a burglary with two dimwitted acquaintances: Bobby (Mark Webber), a junkie-kid who is his current protege, and Teach (Macy), an older, swaggeringly self-doubting hood who may be a former protege. The mark is a customer who recently bought a buffalo nickel from the store for $90, which convinced Don he'd been ripped off and was thus entitled to steal it back: "I bet it's worth five times that? He comes in here like I'm his fucking doorman." The essence of the action is in the flavor of this crime-that-never-happens, in the way the men's blustering about it (driven by their ineptitude) lays bare their perverse inversions of values, their reduction of the American business ethic to a degenerated, greed-based myth that perverts language and ultimately undermines the basis for all genuine connection and loyalty.

    This is a beautiful plan for a drama. Unfortunately, the finished work is, for me, nearly devoid of light and air. I've now seen Buffalo three times, and during each the obtuseness and pettiness of these nickel-and-dime crooks leaves my stomach in knots. Their dramatic world seems to me hermetically closed, deprived of any humane vantage point from which to appreciate Mamet's subtler purposes, and the same is true, incidentally, of Oleanna, with its obtusely arrogant professor and viciously vindictive student pitted against each other in what might as well be a human cockfight. These are not simplistic or uninteresting texts, but they are plays in which Mamet allowed his cynicism to overwhelm his instincts regarding dramatic pleasure.

    Waiting for Godot is a good comparison, since it, too, is built around a static non-action. Imagine Beckett stripping Didi and Gogo of, say, the suspicious information they occasionally offer about their pasts ("Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower") and their occasional self-conscious references to the performance itself ("This is becoming really insignificant." "Not enough"). The effect would be suffocating rather than, as the final work is, heartbreakingly expansive and liberating. The closest Buffalo comes to providing such breezes is Teach's anomalously polemical definition of "free enterprise" in Act 1?"The freedom... Of the Individual... To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit... In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit"?which is quickly swallowed in the general bathos. Mamet's other plays open themselves up through self-conscious role-playing, often introducing some form of it (the real-estate salesmen in Glengarry as actors employed to hoodwink customers; the movie execs in Speed the Plow as cynical dream merchants) that the audience can associate with a general human affliction. If this exists in Buffalo, it's so muffled in quasi-realism, you have to work to dig it out. I'd like to believe that Neil Pepe's production is consciously designed to dig this self-consciousness out, and to let in some humane air. That, however, would imply that the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater (which Mamet cofounded) shares my feelings about the play, which is unlikely. In any case, Pepe's is the lightest, most language-centered and least ominous production of Buffalo I've seen. It will challenge the preconceptions of anyone who views the work (as many critics did in the 1970s and 80s) as a Lower Depths-like snapshot of sleazy underworld life. None of the three actors seems to care a whit whether he comes off as a believable loser. Indeed, Macy's Teach is so articulate, unmenacing and clean-cut, with his gray polyester suit and neatly groomed mustache, that he can easily lay claim to being the first Teach with whom middle-class spectators might identify.

    Whether the play fully supports this is another question. There's certainly a lot of flexibility in the role, more than the previous, thug-like portrayals implied, and Macy (who played Bobby in the original Chicago Buffalo) deserves credit for exploring this, and for speaking Mamet's cadences and rhythms with remarkable accuracy and panache. Excellent as he is at conveying Teach's floating anger and diffidence couched in bravado, however, he's not always plausible as a criminal; his violence seems forced and his diction superior to his language gaffes ("God forbid, something inevitable occurs"). Hall, moreover, has the same problem, magnified: he's very good at reciting Mametese, but he never once convinced me, with his wise, smoothly graveled voice and clear-eyed demeanor, that his Don was as thickheaded and resentful as the play indicates. This leaves Webber's Bobby, with his crooked posture and doe-eyed, chip-on-the-shoulder cluelessness, as the only wholly credible performance.

    There are obviously many Mamet fans who like this play more than I do, and they will be fascinated by the truly new perspective in this production. The question is whether such a risky, counterintuitive approach is capable of winning new converts to the work or the author.

    Atlantic Theater Co., 336 W. 20th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through May 21.

    The Waverly Gallery By Kenneth Lonergan Two years ago, This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's marvelous 1996 play about rich and bored Manhattan postadolescents, finally received the attention it deserved. The Second Stage production directed by Mark Brokaw, which transferred to a commercial run, was a delightful discovery for me. Lonergan's dead-on depiction of a milieu of dead-end privilege, as well as the subtle shrewdness and efficiency of his deceptively modest story, seemed to betoken the arrival of an important new dramatic voice. Now Lonergan is back, with a portrait of mental degeneration in old age that is equally accurate. Unfortunately, The Waverly Gallery lacks the former play's efficiency and narrative shrewdness. Inspired by the author's grandmother's final years nearly a decade ago (he has said), the play sometimes leaves the impression that he's still too close to the material to edit and refine it ruthlessly as art. The best reason to see this show, directed by Scott Ellis, is Eileen Heckart's marvelous performance as the old grandmother Gladys Green. Octogenarian Heckart plays the aged and increasingly deaf proprietor of the titular gallery (a tiny place in the West Village where she mostly reads and watches tv) with a commanding charm and a self-possession that somehow doesn't dissipate as her senility worsens. The story is narrated as a series of memories by her grandson Daniel (Josh Hamilton), who happens to live in her building, and it follows her progress from quirky self-reliance (she lets a poor, out-of-town artist she's never met before sleep in the gallery, for instance), to marginal self-reliance (she deludes herself that she can return to her former work of lawyering after the landlord evicts her from the gallery), to the feared point when she is both utterly impossible to deal with and utterly vulnerable. Lonergan couldn't have hoped for a more loving, appealing or sensitively acted production than this. The whole cast is strong, including Daniel's mother Ellen (Maureen Anderman) and stepfather Howard (Mark Blum), with whom Gladys has absurdly noncommunicative weekly dinners until she must ultimately move in with them. All these actors have fine opportunities to lend gravity and variety to sequences and scenes that would otherwise seem banal or redundant. In the end, though, there's only so much that actors can do to pump fictional power into an essentially diaristic impulse.

    Promenade Theater, 2162 Broadway (76th St.), 580-1313.