Wednesday, November 19, 2008

American Buffalo; or How I Didn't Mind the Bomb

playwright: David Mamet
director: Robert Falls
date attended: Nov. 15, 2008 (evening)
venue: Belasco Theatre

Having caught the Broadway production of American Buffalo, I was sad to read the caustic reviews of the show on Monday, & even more sad to hear that it's closing this Sunday. Closing a week after opening night is
pretty much a bomb. But this show wasn't terrible (or phenomenal), it was just mediocre. But that's not good enough in this terrible economy, so American Buffalo joins the pile of Broadway dead.

It's too bad, because the show had good things going for it, starting with the casting. Not the cast (which was uneven) but the color-blind approach that the producers took. It updated the play invisibly, though it lost some of the specificity of the 1970s lower-class white Chicago setting. Other than the milieu itself, there's nothing intrinsically white about these characters. And by casting a Hispanic & an African-American in these roles, it underscores how American the play is. I hope that other producers follow Buffalo's lead: this production's casting seemed forward-looking, like Obama's victory.

In fact, I got a lot more from it than I did from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last summer. The script's a real classic, & like Shakespeare's plays, it can stand mediocrity (whereas Williams' drama could not). Cedric the Entertainer ("Don") was great, & he should do more stage work -- his deep, resonant voice fits well in a Broadway cavern. He lived his words, giving a seemingly-spontaneous performance. I can't say that about John Leguizamo ("Teacher") or young Haley Joel Osment ("Bobby"), neither of whom seemed wholly comfortable with the language -- & Mamet performances live or die in the delivery.

Really, the problem with this production American Buffalo (& few reviews said this) was that Robert Falls' direction was superficial. Mamet, who in this play waves his Pinter influence like a flag, is deeply ironic and ambiguous. But Falls was content to show the mere action, without a sense of dramatic irony. It felt like a simulation of Mamet's play, not a performance. Which is okay -- as I said, a great script can withstand a mediocre production -- except that these tickets cost more than a C-note. American Buffalo is one more victim of the economic downturn, an irony that Mamet might appreciate even if his characters probably couldn't.


Photo from American Buffalo's website

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