You know you’re at a David Mamet play when, before the show even starts, you’re asked to turn off your fucking cell phones.
While the play was first produced in the seventies, the subject matter is hardly dated; nothing gives away the time period (except for John Leguizamo’s crazy-patterned shirt — which could easily be more of a nod toward his character’s thrift-store-shopping-habits than the decade); even in the program “The Time” is listed only as “One Friday”.
And really, do we need to know more? Almost unfolding in real time, this slice-of-life drama takes us through one random Friday when three guys, passing in and out of Don’s Junk Shop, decide to steal back an American Buffalo nickel after they come to the realization that it was sold for a fraction of its worth. Honestly, the nickel has very little to do with this two hour drama … what you’re really there to see is the way men interact with each other when trust, pride, reputation, and money are at stake.
Language is very important to Mamet. His rapid-fire dialog is to theatre what the Andy Warhol soup can is to art … immediately recognizable, hypnotically repetitive, and a little colorful at first … but once you fall into the rhythm the magic can start.
For the first few minutes of this production of American Buffalo it’s very difficult to let go of the “I’m watching a play” feeling. Cedric the Entertainer, as Don, delivers his lines with a natural cadence, and a believable conviction, but for the most part Haley Joel Osment fires back his lines not so much in response, but more in a desperate attempt to keep the ball in play. You can literally hear him thinking “My turn! … (bam) …. pause … my turn! … (pow) … pause … my turn! … (thwack) … move to the chair … Oh, my turn again?“ His character is supposed to be a little angsty, but there are moments when Osment’s brow-furrowing doesn’t seem like acting, but more like confusion as to how his face should look in order to match what his mouth is saying. At times he speeds up the rhythm to an unnatural pace, stepping on the previous line (thwack) … but Cedric volleys back like a pro, as if he was speaking from his heart, not his script.
Once John Leguizamo comes on the scene all bets are off; he quickly becomes the focal point and here’s where it starts getting interesting. From his opening rant he’s immediately enjoyable “Fucking Ruthie … Fucking Ruthie! … Fucking Ruthie …” It’s amusing just to see how many ways he can skew the same two words. You can hear an audible click as the rhythm of the back and forth now becomes something more; not just a one / two / one / two back beat, but a beat you can dance to. Here’s when you sit back and get sucked in. Suddenly, it seems like you’re listening in on something very private.
It’s no wonder — both John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer are seasoned comedians, their bread and butter is in the timing. Both men understand how to work an audience by twisting a line just so in order to get the desired effect. This isn’t something you learn, this comes from years of being in front of a live audience delivering well crafted jokes spoken as though they were spontaneously thought up on the spot. Leguizamo and C the E earned their stripes in front of a live audience. Just as Teach tells Don, “One thing makes all the difference. Knowing what the fuck you’re talking about …“ These guys know what they’re talking about. (Don’t worry, little Haley Joel … just as Bob needs to be put through his paces before he can play with the big boys, so will you learn how to master this acting thing. We all know that first Oscar Nomination was for the cute factor. Luckily … you don’t have to worry about that anymore).
It can’t be easy though, reviving a play with men who are best known for comedy. While no one can deny that Leguizamo and C the E can deftly handle the corners when moving from comic to tragic moments, there seemed to be some inappropriate laughter at certain moments from the audience … laughing in spots where they may not have laughed at, say, Robert Duvall in the 1977 production or Al Pacino in the 1983 revival.
Laughter’s a hard thing to account for … aside from applause it’s really the only way an audience has to communicate back to the actors. It’s sometimes just as often a way of saying “Yeah, I’m with you” or “Hey, I appreciate that” as it is of saying “Boy, was that funny …”. That can be both the blessing and the curse of casting men well known for a specific style. Celebrities of any kind bring their whole history on stage with them, and often an audience goes to gawk, deride, or pander to a “name” as much as to watch a show. Casting Madonna in Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow … need I say more? The minute these men of comedy command the stage, the audience is ready, and willing, to laugh. This is a particular deterrent when Teach’s complete dismissal of an injured Bob comes off as cluelessness as opposed to steely indifference or even just an anxious need to get on with the matters at hand. And yet, maybe that’s the unexpected benefit of using a less traditional cast for this production. New layers are allowed to unfold, nuances can be explored, shades of meaning arise where they hadn’t been before.
Speaking of diversity … this is the first time that American Buffalo has been cast with men of color; the producers were looking to bring an “urban identity” to the project. I think one of the joys of watching great performers, however, is being so drawn into the story that race becomes just a footnote. After all, American Buffalo deals with bravado, suspicion, and honor … themes that cross all races. Honestly, I didn’t see the cast as “diverse” as much as I saw them as “talented”. Still, it’s a great day when we can witness color-blind casting.
Ultimately, this is a great revival of a strong play … the new cast is exciting, and the junk shop set (which looks like eBay exploded) is fun to stare at while you wait for the show to start. Definitely try and catch this limited run while it’s still around.
American Buffalo by David Mamet opens at the Belasco Theatre on Monday, November 17th and stars John Leguizamo as Teach, Cedric the Entertainer as Don, and a much-taller-than-I-remember-him Haley Joel Osment as Bob. Tickets can be purchased through TeleCharge.