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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 19, 2000. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `American Buffalo’

E-mail: Simon Saltzman@princetoninfo.com

As good as it gets is what you get in the production

of David Mamet’s "American Buffalo," at the Mamet-founded

Atlantic Theater Company. This is a terrific staging by Neil Pepe,

the Atlantic’s artistic director. "Buffalo’s" return for a

fourth time to a New York stage is marked by three actors who bring

a conspiratorial edge of the unexpected to the 24-year-old play about

three lame-brained losers who, one rainy Chicago night, plan to pull

off a robbery.

Grab this opportunity to see William H. Macy, a true Mamet disciple,

tackle the role of the unstable and explosive Teach, a far cry from

the role of the young stooge Bobby he played in the world premiere

of "Buffalo" in the Goodman Theater production in Chicago

in 1975. The actor, who created roles in several of Mamet’s original

productions, including the film version of "Oleanna," gives

another hyper-intense performance as Teach, the stunningly inept hoodlum

whose feigned literacy is no barrier to his stupidity. For pure fun,

Macy’s quirky performance is as loony and unpredictable as was the

Academy Award-nominated performance he gave in the movie "Fargo."

Playing opposite Macy, and taking his first stab at Mamet as Donny,

the owner of a junk shop with larceny on his mind, is Philip Baker

Hall. Hall, whose craggy features, slow burning responses, and cement-mixer

voice are balanced against Macy’s wide-eyed gaze, volatile behavior,

and rat-a-tat-tat philosophizing, brings his own unsettling edge to

this botched, would-be caper. Making his professional theatrical debut

is Mark Webber, who is not only confident, but also consistently surprising

as Bobby, Donny’s dense apprentice.

To watch and listen to these actors, as three petty

crooks who spend more time reacting to each other than enacting their

plan to steal a coin collection, is to appreciate Mamet at his most

audacious and scabrous. For audiences who saw the recent "Glengarry

Glen Ross" production at McCarter Theater, this earlier play is

equally ripe with the once raw (now al dente) language that

propels the characters, their puerile behavior, and petty scheme.

Possibly because the dialogue is no longer shocking, the situation,

their actions, and indeed, their incessant banter is quite funny,

ferociously street-smart, and even intentionally dopey.

The awesome floor to ceiling collection of debris, discards, broken-down

furniture, and tacky memorabilia, which designer Kevin Rigdon has

created like a nightmarish architectural wonder to resemble a low-rent

neighborhood junk shop, is only second in organized chaos to the three

dregs of humanity who inhabit it. Though certainly less shocking in

its use of four and seven-letter expletives than it must have seemed

the first time, Mamet’s play remains provocative and intriguing.

Within the framework of their ruthless code of honor, these crooks

also subtly and unwittingly explore the importance of loyalty, friendship,

and the need for love even among society’s low life. While the play

courses the incompetence of Teach, the junk shop owner, and his young

sidekick, in their muddling middle-of-the-night escapade, it is the

detailed idiosyncrasies of these pathetic characters that is the heart

of the matter. That the actors get it all so right makes this another

reason why "American Buffalo" is far from becoming extinct.

This Neil Pepe staging of "American Buffalo" was a success

at London’s Donmar Playhouse before coming to New York. "Buffalo,"

in spite of an unsuccessful first round in 1977 (and winner of the

New York Drama Critics award for Best Play), with the highly acclaimed

Robert Duvall, also caught the fancy of Al Pacino, who not only starred

in the well received Off-Broadway production in 1981 but repeated

his role on Broadway in 1983. Whether you choose to consider this

production of "American Buffalo" the definitive one is less

important than that it succeeds in defining and refining the lot of

three of dramatic literature’s most irrepressible losers. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

American Buffalo, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20

Street, New York, 212-645-1242. $45. Through May 21.

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