A New American Buffalo

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

David Mamet
, David Mamet’s first two-act play, received
mostly lukewarm reviews when it appeared in 1975. Within a decade–after
several high-profile productions and a film starring Dustin Hoffman–it
helped establish his international reputation. This play and Glengarry Glen
(written in 1983) were the works that ultimately changed many people’s
minds about Mamet, demonstrating that his habitual themes of deception and betrayal
weren’t merely the crotchets of an angry young Pinter-epigone but rather
essential aspects of a coherent artistic vision encompassing American culture
as a whole.

Junkshop-owner Don (Philip
Baker Hall), lord of a seedy and cluttered bric-a-brac den in Chicago, plans
a burglary with two dimwitted acquaintances: Bobby (Mark Webber), a junkie-kid
who is his current protege, and Teach (Macy), an older, swaggeringly self-doubting
hood who may be a former protege. The mark is a customer who recently bought
a buffalo nickel from the store for $90, which convinced Don he’d been
ripped off and was thus entitled to steal it back: "I bet it’s worth
five times that… He comes in here like I’m his fucking doorman."
The essence of the action is in the flavor of this crime-that-never-happens,
in the way the men’s blustering about it (driven by their ineptitude) lays
bare their perverse inversions of values, their reduction of the American business
ethic to a degenerated, greed-based myth that perverts language and ultimately
undermines the basis for all genuine connection and loyalty.

This is a beautiful plan
for a drama. Unfortunately, the finished work is, for me, nearly devoid of light
and air. I’ve now seen Buffalo three times, and during each the
obtuseness and pettiness of these nickel-and-dime crooks leaves my stomach in
knots. Their dramatic world seems to me hermetically closed, deprived of any
humane vantage point from which to appreciate Mamet’s subtler purposes,
and the same is true, incidentally, of Oleanna, with its obtusely arrogant
professor and viciously vindictive student pitted against each other in what
might as well be a human cockfight. These are not simplistic or uninteresting
texts, but they are plays in which Mamet allowed his cynicism to overwhelm his
instincts regarding dramatic pleasure.

Waiting for Godot
is a good comparison, since it, too, is built around a static non-action. Imagine
Beckett stripping Didi and Gogo of, say, the suspicious information they occasionally
offer about their pasts ("Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower")
and their occasional self-conscious references to the performance itself ("This
is becoming really insignificant." "Not enough"). The effect
would be suffocating rather than, as the final work is, heartbreakingly expansive
and liberating. The closest Buffalo comes to providing such breezes is
Teach’s anomalously polemical definition of "free enterprise"
in Act 1–"The freedom… Of the Individual… To Embark on Any Fucking
Course that he sees fit… In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit"–which
is quickly swallowed in the general bathos. Mamet’s other plays open themselves
up through self-conscious role-playing, often introducing some form of it (the
real-estate salesmen in Glengarry as actors employed to hoodwink customers;
the movie execs in Speed the Plow as cynical dream merchants) that the
audience can associate with a general human affliction. If this exists in Buffalo,
it’s so muffled in quasi-realism, you have to work to dig it out. I’d
like to believe that Neil Pepe’s production is consciously designed to
dig this self-consciousness out, and to let in some humane air. That, however,
would imply that the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater (which Mamet
cofounded) shares my feelings about the play, which is unlikely. In any case,
Pepe’s is the lightest, most language-centered and least ominous production
of Buffalo I’ve seen. It will challenge the preconceptions of anyone
who views the work (as many critics did in the 1970s and 80s) as a Lower
-like snapshot of sleazy underworld life. None of the three actors
seems to care a whit whether he comes off as a believable loser. Indeed, Macy’s
Teach is so articulate, unmenacing and clean-cut, with his gray polyester suit
and neatly groomed mustache, that he can easily lay claim to being the first
Teach with whom middle-class spectators might identify.

Whether the play fully supports
this is another question. There’s certainly a lot of flexibility in the
role, more than the previous, thug-like portrayals implied, and Macy (who played
Bobby in the original Chicago Buffalo) deserves credit for exploring
this, and for speaking Mamet’s cadences and rhythms with remarkable accuracy
and panache. Excellent as he is at conveying Teach’s floating anger and
diffidence couched in bravado, however, he’s not always plausible as a
criminal; his violence seems forced and his diction superior to his language
gaffes ("God forbid, something inevitable occurs"). Hall, moreover,
has the same problem, magnified: he’s very good at reciting Mametese, but
he never once convinced me, with his wise, smoothly graveled voice and clear-eyed
demeanor, that his Don was as thickheaded and resentful as the play indicates.
This leaves Webber’s Bobby, with his crooked posture and doe-eyed, chip-on-the-shoulder
cluelessness, as the only wholly credible performance.

There are obviously many
Mamet fans who like this play more than I do, and they will be fascinated by
the truly new perspective in this production. The question is whether such a
risky, counterintuitive approach is capable of winning new converts to the work
or the author.

Atlantic Theater Co., 336
W. 20th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through May 21.

The Waverly
Kenneth Lonergan
years ago, This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan’s marvelous 1996
play about rich and bored Manhattan postadolescents, finally received the attention
it deserved. The Second Stage production directed by Mark Brokaw, which transferred
to a commercial run, was a delightful discovery for me. Lonergan’s dead-on
depiction of a milieu of dead-end privilege, as well as the subtle shrewdness
and efficiency of his deceptively modest story, seemed to betoken the arrival
of an important new dramatic voice. Now Lonergan is back, with a portrait of
mental degeneration in old age that is equally accurate. Unfortunately, The
Waverly Gallery
lacks the former play’s efficiency and narrative shrewdness.
Inspired by the author’s grandmother’s final years nearly a decade
ago (he has said), the play sometimes leaves the impression that he’s still
too close to the material to edit and refine it ruthlessly as art.

The best reason to see this
show, directed by Scott Ellis, is Eileen Heckart’s marvelous performance
as the old grandmother Gladys Green. Octogenarian Heckart plays the aged and
increasingly deaf proprietor of the titular gallery (a tiny place in the West
Village where she mostly reads and watches tv) with a commanding charm and a
self-possession that somehow doesn’t dissipate as her senility worsens.
The story is narrated as a series of memories by her grandson Daniel (Josh Hamilton),
who happens to live in her building, and it follows her progress from quirky
self-reliance (she lets a poor, out-of-town artist she’s never met before
sleep in the gallery, for instance), to marginal self-reliance (she deludes
herself that she can return to her former work of lawyering after the landlord
evicts her from the gallery), to the feared point when she is both utterly impossible
to deal with and utterly vulnerable. Lonergan couldn’t have hoped for a
more loving, appealing or sensitively acted production than this. The whole
cast is strong, including Daniel’s mother Ellen (Maureen Anderman) and
stepfather Howard (Mark Blum), with whom Gladys has absurdly noncommunicative
weekly dinners until she must ultimately move in with them. All these actors
have fine opportunities to lend gravity and variety to sequences and scenes
that would otherwise seem banal or redundant. In the end, though, there’s
only so much that actors can do to pump fictional power into an essentially
diaristic impulse.

Promenade Theater, 2162
Broadway (76th St.), 580-1313.