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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It's been thirty years since Robert Duvall burst into Donny Dubrow's incredibly messy Chicago resale shop as the volatile Teach. Al Pacino's even more explosive Teach came four years later. While both these Broadway productions preceded Curtainup's launch, this is the third opportunity I've had to review noteworthy productions of this early play about a trio of inept hustlers: Don, whose messy pawnshop serves as the "board room " where they concoct their sure to fail " business" scams -- the latest, and the scheme which propels the plot, being a keystone cops heist initiated by Don after realizing that he may have sold a valuable American Buffalo nickel. . . Walter, a low life with no visible job but who comes by his metaphoric nickname of Teach because he always has some philosophical comment on the way of the world . . . and Bobby, the dim-witted teenager with a drug habit who's Don's gofer. In short, three people who are as much life's unwanted debris as the contents of Don's shop, and clearly the real obsolete buffalos.
The first revival that I reviewed eight years ago was done at the Atlantic Theater of which Mamet is co-founder. Its featured William Macey (another Atlantic founder), who earlier in his career has once played Bobby, as Teach. Macey, aware of the mark that Duvall and Pacino had left on the role opted to play it with a stiletto rather than a sledgehammer which proved to be a slightly tame but interesting approach. Three summers ago Chris Noth (the Mr. Big of Sex and the City, and hard working Law & Order detective), came to the Berkshires to create a Teach who was a rivetingly vulnerable psychotic. His quirky movements and dark rolling eyes reminiscent of a taller, more muscular Al Pacino. If Noth weren't currently busy as a political campaign manager in Farragut North (review) now playing at the very Atlantic Theater where Iast saw American Buffalo, I would have liked to see him reprise that role in this new Broadway production. That's not to say that John Leguizamo the Teach now at the Belasco is terrible.
Leguizamo's dynamic physicality and cocky style, previously put to good use in his solo stand-up shows, Freak and Sexaholix, makes for an eminently watchable Teach. New to the stage TV celebrity Cedric the Entertainer is a credible Don; and TV and and film actor Haley Joel Osment, another stage newbie, actually intensifies Bobby's dim-wittedness to the point where we pity him.
So why does this latest American Buffalo come off as competently staged and performed but lacking the snap, crackle and pop of this season's other Mamet revival, Speed-the-Plow? (review). The problem is that the usually infallible director Robert Fall's has aimed for a naturalism that undermines Mamet's highly stylized script in which even the three much mentioned but never seen characters are written so that the audience can picture them vividly. That naturalism for too much of the time translates the staccato Mamet-speak into plain-speak. Consequently the words don't always land as written, which also obscures their underlying meaning and some of the nuances of the characters and their interpersonal relationships.
While the extensive use of once taboo language, no matter how well delivered, has become so common that audiences are likely to find the barrage of linguistic bombs more tiresome than shocking, what happens to the mind-boggingly messy junk shop created by Santo Loquasto (who also designed the original Broadway production) in the second act is still gasp-inducing. Still, as is the case with any revival of an early work by a playwright whose reputation has grown over the years, it's always fascinating to see a seminal early work, whether again or for the first time—even if it's less than perfect. If you saw the 2005 revival of Mamet's later and more mature Glengarry Glen Ross, you can see how the Three Stooges-like trio of Buffalo lived on in that Pulitzer Prize winner.
For more about David Mamet and quotes by him and from his plays, along with links to his work that we've reviewed, check out our Mamet Backgrounder