November 22, 2008

The Premature Death of "American Buffalo"

TV ads are expensive and most Broadway producers put off buying commercials as long as they can. So it didn’t seem a good sign when one for American Buffalo came on the TV at the bar of Brooklyn Diner USA on 43rd Street while I was sitting there eating a burger right before seeing the new revival of the show and just two days after it had opened at the Belasco Theatre. Earlier that day, the producers had posted a notice saying the show would close on Sunday unless ticket sales picked up.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. David Mamet’s dark comedy about three desperate losers who plot to steal a coin collection is now a classic. But the new production, directed by Robert Falls, drew largely negative reviews. The harshest one came from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who sniped, “Nobody appears desperate here. Well, not the characters, anyway; the actors are another matter.”

The actors in question are John Leguizamo, Cedric The Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment. And I thought they did fine. In fact, I had a good time at the show. And I’m really sorry that it looks as though more people won’t get a chance to see and enjoy it too (click here to see some excerpts).

American Buffalo
, first produced in Mamet’s native Chicago back in 1976, was the playwright’s breakout, introducing theater lovers to the distinctively profane poetry of his language and his trademark themes of male bonding, fast deals and power plays. The show’s 1977 Broadway run is now legendary for Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the central character Teach. In fact, the role of this most volatile member of the trio has evolved into a kind of Hamlet of the American canon—a role by which actors can really test their theatrical mettle.

In addition to Duvall, the part has been played by Al Pacino in a 1983 Broadway revival, Dustin Hoffman in the 1996 movie, and William H. Macy in an acclaimed 2000 production at the Atlantic Theater Company, which he and Mamet co-founded in 1985. Those names obviously suggest a certain intensity. But does that mean there’s only one way to play Teach?

You might think so from the reviews of Leguizamo’s performance. Even my friend Ellie the former actress thought he wasn’t menacing enough. But like any good actor, Leguizamo, always a genial presence, draws on his own personality to create the role. His Teach knows he’s a phony tough guy and so do his friends. His climactic act of violence surprises him as much as it does the audience. And although that may not be as scary as playing him as a raging tyrant, it seems a valid interpretation to me.

Going in I had worried more about Cedric The Entertainer, the comedian who is making his theatrical debut in the show. But he won me over in less than five minutes. His years as a stand-up comedian have clearly made him comfortable in front of a live audience. And he was totally believable as the mainstay of the group.

Osment, just 20 and still best known as the kid in the 1999 movie "The Sixth Sense", is also making his stage debut with the show. I didn’t totally buy him as a junkie but there was a yearning-to-please sweetness to his performance that worked for the character.

The multicultural nature of the cast didn’t seem to work for many of the critics. And that bothered me. There is no reason to think that a black man, an Hispanic guy and a white kid wouldn’t hang out together in what is clearly (and wonderfully rendered in Santo Loquasto’s detailed set) the junk shop part of their city.

Others object to the celebrity casting. I'm usually less bothered by that than the naysayers. I think it's a good thing that movie people see a validity in the theater. And it can be a very good thing when they draw more attention to theater. In this case, the casting also comes with the added bonus of attracting a more diverse audience.

There were more black faces at the performance of American Buffalo Ellie and I attended than you usually see at Broadway plays.
An African-American couple sitting near us may have come because they were fans of “The Original Kings of Comedy”, the comedy tour and later movie that made Cedric famous, but they were totally rapt as they watched him perform in American Buffalo. It’ll be a shame if more of his fans, and more theater lovers in general, don’t get the same chance.


doug marino said...

love your blog. ~doug~

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Doug, thanks so much for the kind words. I'm embarrassed to say that I've just discovered your blog but am delighted to say that I like it so much, I've bookmarked it for myself and am listing it on my blog log in case others don't know about it. Looking forward to future exchanges with you, jan