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In 'American Buffalo,' grift is the coin of the realm
Laurence Fishburne, left, and Sam Rockwell in “American Buffalo” at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York, March 21, 2022. Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne and Darren Criss star in an electric revival of the David Mamet play about capitalism in a junk shop. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- On Sunday’s edition of the Fox News show “Life, Liberty & Levin,” David Mamet, the playwright turned Trumpite culture warrior, made an incendiary comment.

“Teachers are inclined, particularly men because men are predators, to pedophilia,” he said, citing no evidence. “If there’s no community control of the schools, what we have is kids being not only indoctrinated but groomed.”

It was not a traditional way of publicizing the Broadway revival of one of your best plays, but perhaps Mamet was thinking not of teachers per se but of a character called Teach. In “American Buffalo,” Teach is a thug prone to crackpot theories, bordering on paranoia, about his friends and associates and human nature in general.

In the electric revival that opened Thursday at Circle in the Square, Teach is embodied with coiled and then terrifyingly uncoiled ferocity by Sam Rockwell, making a great occasion of a great role. When he first skitters into the junk shop run by his poker buddy Don — Laurence Fishburne in a beautifully considered performance — he’s already seething about a petty insult and stalking the joint like a rat-peacock hybrid. By the time he inserts himself into a heist Don is planning with his dim young gofer and protégé, Bobby, played by the angelic if underpowered Darren Criss, he is so hopped up on delusions of profit that he endangers the operation he means to abet.

When “American Buffalo” first hit the stage, in Chicago in 1975, its portrait of lowlifes like Teach — two-bit grifters aping the realpolitik of American business — was a game changer. Though it did not quite induce sympathy for a man who would strike a kid in the face with an iron, it did make audiences queasy about the respectable entrepreneurs whose behavior Teach was translating to his own turf. In language as crass and cadenced as gunfire, Mamet turned their man-eat-man philosophy, which some call capitalism, into brutal prole poetry: a poetry of predation, you might even say.

To see “American Buffalo” now, in a time when everyone seems to talk like Teach, is to be unsurprised — and thus, in a way, more harrowed. What could be more terrible than to realize we’ve acclimated to the ideas the play introduced?

Yet this revival, its third on Broadway, is too compelling to permit complacency. Directed with gleeful energy by Neil Pepe, it keeps its attention on the music of the dialogue. Indeed, that’s the only music you get, as Mamet does not allow the regular kind or even amplification. (There are no mics and no sound designer.) Not to worry: With the audience on three sides of Circle’s capsule-shaped stage, everyone is close enough to hear just fine as the actors get their mouths around the characters’ baroque constructions.

“I don’t think I’m saying anything here.”

“It makes no earthly difference in the world.”

“You want to find a reason we should jump all over each other all of a sudden like we work in a bloodbank, fine. But it’s not good business.”

With dialogue so rewarding of careful attention, and a plot spring-loaded to keep your mind on its mechanisms, a director who wants to address the bigger implications of “American Buffalo” is left to work at the margins. Pepe, a longtime Mamet colleague, does so mostly by moving the characters like mice in a maze on Scott Pask’s ingenious junk shop set. Filled to the janky rafters with a half-century of capitalism’s castoffs, it suggests the ruined brain of an addled man or the ruined conscience of a country.

It is through that junk — behind tables of tchotchkes and items hanging in our sightline — that we see the action, and also see other members of the audience, as if to say we are all in this business together. What Pepe has the actors do incidentally as they maneuver its cramped aisles is also telling: Don cleaning up, Bobby trailing him like a puppy, Teach idly handling the merchandise. And yet, perhaps, not so idly. The items he chooses to twiddle include dumbbells and boxing gloves and “a thing that they stick in dead pigs” to keep their legs apart as “all the blood runs out.”

Mamet contrasts Teach’s macho postures with Don’s gentler but by no means refined version of masculinity: avuncular yet menacing, slower to anger yet never quite nice. In Fishburne’s big, unshowy performance, you feel the pleasure and pressure behind Don’s creation of that double image. He’s a man of principle who thinks nothing of stealing the valuable nickel for which the play is named; he’s a family man without a family. His tough-love approach to Bobby, a recovering heroin addict who never fails to fail, is touching until you see it for what it is: indoctrination.

Or shall we call it grooming? But that would be to indulge in the same kind of baseless speculation Mamet did about teachers on Fox. In any case, the play draws its big energy and explosive humor from such contradictions. Teach, who carries a gun, is a wuss about the rain. Bobby, a bit of a blank even in the best performances, with lines that rarely stretch past five words, is eager to learn the ropes of a world that has long since hung him out to dry.

I know how Bobby feels. As a lover of Mamet’s early work — “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” “The Woods” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” to name a few — I am by now used to the feeling of being cheated by what came later. More recent plays like “China Doll” and “The Penitent” are not just weird 1-percenter whines but dull, dull, dull.

This crackling revival of “American Buffalo” highlights by contrast the devolution of Mamet’s craft that coincided with the shift in his worldview, from red-diaper baby to apologist for billionaires. How could the man who showed us how the powerless are crushed by the lessons of the powerful now argue, both in plays and on television, that the problem flows in the other direction?

Not that I wield the ax of cancel culture. As both Teach and Mamet might argue, let the market have its say. (I doubt you will ever see a Broadway revival of the repellent “China Doll.”) But when a playwright begins to sound in life like his characters do onstage, you have to wonder: Who’s teaching whom?

'American Buffalo'

Through July 10 at Circle in the Square, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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