For such a small play, “American Buffalo” feels huge.
David Mamet’s carnivorous 1975 drama, a pass-the-popcorn revival of which opened Thursday night on Broadway, is set in an unremarkable basement pawn shop in Chicago that, other than the three characters, gets no customers for the entire show.
That angry trio obsesses, not over weighty and obvious issues like the president, or social injustice, or the rent, or love — all they care about is a buffalo nickel that may or may not be worth $90.
1 hour and 40 minutes with one intermission. At the Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St. Through July 10.
The guys natter on and on about the coin, occasionally taking a break to opine on coffee (they rail against java while demanding somebody go get it) and their shady acquaintances’ habit of cheating at cards.
The ultimate goal of these deliberations? To steal the nickel back from the man it was sold to at too low a price.
Not exactly Earth-shattering stuff. Yet Mamet’s 47-year-old play hits harder than the many self-important staged newspaper op-eds of today. Most Americans continue to inhabit suffocating spaces, are glued to their work and will do anything for some quick cash. Now more than ever. We might not all buy and sell used lampshades, but “American Buffalo” feels as if it’s about us.
The other reason Mamet’s early career show has been revived so many times is that the play is a hot dog eating contest for actors — gluttonous, fast and oddly mesmerizing.
Sam Rockwell, Darren Criss and Laurence Fishburne are three fast-talking, Chicago stooges.Richard TermineAt each other’s entertaining throats this time are Laurence Fishburne as Donny, the pawn shop’s owner; Sam Rockwell as Teach, his firebrand associate; and Darren Criss as Bobby, a naive young meathead who wants to be like both of them. Worst mentors ever!
Rockwell, shockingly, has only worked with Mamet once before on the 2001 film “Heist,” which the playwright wrote and directed. That’s weird because Rockwell is a person that Mamet could invent. The writer’s talk-before-you-think style is second nature for the actor, who comfortably stomps around Scott Pask’s hoarder paradise set like it’s a place where he’s been throwing peanut shells on the floor for decades. You can’t take your eyes off him.
Bobby (Criss) is mentored by Donny (Fishburne). Richard TermineRockwell and Fishburne nail the buddy-cop dynamic of these prickly parts. Donny is the cool-headed mediator (who also says “f – – k” a lot) and Teach is a furious, distrusting bully whose temper is surely exacerbated by his skintight plaid pants. Fishburne’s commanding portrayal reminds me of the best kind of bartender — a sweetheart when he takes your drink order and a hardass when he drags a drunk to the curb by his collar.
And although Criss has the least rewarding role of the three, his empty-headed kid is a fun 180 from his diabolical characters in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” or on Broadway in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Bobby certainly doesn’t have Hedwig’s wit, and the actor shows just how versatile he is.
Their dance of “f – – k”s and “c – – t”s and hurled objects (the front row is practically a splash zone) is muscularly choreographed by director Neil Pepe. He understands Mamet well, and knows “American Buffalo” is just three schlubs shootin’ the s – – t … and maybe each other.