Friday, November 14, 2008

American Buffalo

I'm very happy that there are two David Mamet plays now running on Broadway. If it was up to me, there would be Mamet plays running on a loop forever, I love him so much.
Quaint is not an adjective that should even come up when talking about a Mamet play, but that was the feeling I got yesterday from the new production of American Buffalo, directed, without the slightest edge, by Robert Falls.
There is the interesting multiculti casting, which, like many plays on Broadway today, brings movie or TV stars to buoy ticket sales. I have no problem with any of the gifted performers in American Buffalo. Cedric the Entertainer, the fabulous John Leguizamo, and I See Dead People, (Haley Joel Osment). Hey, we have a Black president, and yes, this is America, where corruption and greed and venality are everyone's God given right, regardless of skin tone (isn't America great?).
It's cool to mix it up. But it has to work.
What I love about Mamet is that he just cuts right through the American bullshit. What is American free enterprise if not permission to scam someone else? We are all pool sharks, con men, small time robbers. In Hollywood, in real estate, in antiques, doesn't matter. To see these three not upstanding Chicago citizens scheme is to think of people like Henry Paulson and whoever is still at large for the subprime mortgage catastrophe, no difference. This is the land of the massive con and the absolute genius at paying lip service to empty words like freedom and justice, and shit. I love Mamet for calling it out.
The play should and does resonate in these times where money, or its precipitous vanishing, is on everyone's mind. But something about the show feels strangely muted, and lacking sharpness. Not the text itself, with its gorgeously salty language and great humor. There is something off in the performances. It's like the actors are holding back. Like a paint by numbers show. Mamet plays should feel like someone is twisting a knife in your gut, not like a Hallmark movie of the week. The end violence felt contrived to me and I'm hoping it is not the fault of the play, but of how the production gets there.
Dennis Frantz, in the movie, gave a definitive performance of Donny, the junk shop owner. You could tell from his droopy eyelids he had been around the block and then some. Cedric, who has an amazing presence, is avuncular and wise but he is totally lacking edge. He could be running the cub scouts, yet he is supposed to be some sort of a shark and the disparity between his heartfelt concern for the kid and his ruthlessness is not as clear and horribly ironic as it should be. He is the center of the play and the unleasher of the action. He uses people. Being a nice little crook does not cut the mustard. Donny's calculating turns need to hurt, and they don't, so the play falls flat.
One nice thing about Cedric, however, is that the rhythms of the speech feel natural in his African American inflection. The actors all do a great job of getting the musicality of the speech right. In fact, in my experience, the only time when this hasn't happened is when Mamet directs his plays himself and the actors all sound like robots. I surmise that actors must love to wrap their tongues and voices around the sound of Mamet's cursing. It is delicious, and vicious and gorgeous.
As Teach, John Leguizamo is vibrant and funny and suitably sociopathic. He is a perfect small time hood, full of comic idiotic bluster, yet menacing enough. A live wire. I thought his was the best performance, though the audience (who doesn't know dick and gives standing ovations to the post) showed much more love for Cedric. If Leguizamo is trying to affect a Chicago accent, he should abandon the effort and just be himself. I think he can grow this into a great performance, but last night it felt as if he was holding back. The violence needs to be more convincing. When he goes on a rampage he needs to let it tear. I'm sure Dead People can stand a couple of good slaps in the face for the sake of thespian immortality (then again, if the play is a hit, I wouldn't blame him if he didn't). It should not feel like the actors are dicking around at acting. This is a Mamet play, for crying out loud. The guys in the Hollywood office a couple of blocks away display more ruthless, savage instinct than these street guys from Chicago. Now bring back the guys in the real estate office, and I'm in heaven.

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