Having admired the Cherry Lane's two David Mamet plays,"Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Duck Variations," and after hearing some hosannahs for Mamet's newer "American Buffalo," I hastened to the Ethel Barrymore Theater. What a letdown!
In an over-constructed set of a junkshop by Santo Loquasto, Donny, its proprietor, has latched onto a heist he thinks promising. A stranger has found a buffalo nickel in the shop and paid $50 for it. Though his shrewdness masks ignorance of most things, including coins, Donny figures the man has a coin collection and, chasing off Bobby, a young protege, to tail the fall guy home, decides to rob the man of his assumed collection.
Joining in the plot is a garrulous old friend, presumably a taxi driver, whom Donny and Bobby refer to as Teacher. As verbal as Bobby is monosyllabic and Donny is tentative, blustering Teacher takes charge, distrusting Bobby's junky habits as unreliable and deciding that Fletch should be the heist's third man. Teacher expresses his miseries, some possibly sexual, by blowing torrents of words, most long, and if short, scatalogical, some apt, some misused. The audience laughs much as those for the Georgian tragedy "Tobacco Road" roared at Jeeter Lester.
Act II is devoted to the period of the planned robbery. delayed because Donny's repeated phone calls to Fletch produce no answer. Bobby has picked up a report [WORD ILLEGIBLE] is in a hospital [WORD ILLEGIBLE] also suspect that Bobby failed to tail the customer home and hence wants to scrub the heist. None of these three ever levels with the others. The robbery is not attempted. The only visible change is in Bobby, whose head is spurting blood after Teacher has banged him with a handy flatiron.
No characters have altered one whit, nothing has happened, which is the point of not a few recent plays. The interval included the two acts have lasted only 105 minutes.
Is this drama? The play has been praised as expressing the loneliness of the three men and for the "beautiful language" of Mamet as illustrative of "pure street talk." I didn't believe most of the dialogue, accurate as snatches of it may be. In fact, I found Mamet rather patronizing of his characters, mocking their ignorant pretentions from a perch of superiority.
The playing by Kenneth McMillan as Donny, John Savage as Bobby and Robert Duvall as Teacher, is so forcefully assured that the performances, under Ulu Grosbard's direction, cannot be faulted. One may even admire the perhaps contagious conviction that all are representing deep and fascinating characters.
One may summon compassion for such unfortunates, but to label, as some have, this leaden excursion into meanderings of inarticulate, failed criminals as "the best American play of the year" is merely to reflect what a trashy theater season New York has had.
I share the view of the others in this split critical decision, who found [WORD ILLEGIBLE] this coarse twaddle adds up to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] zero."