Just about everyone in theater is familiar with Anton Chekhov’s comment that, to paraphrase, says once a gun is seen on stage it better go off before the play’s over. So what would he think about David Mamet’s career-making American Buffalo, which director Robert Falls is giving an effective if not explosive revival at the Belasco, in which small-time crook Teach (John Leguizamo) draws a pistol, but the trigger is never pulled?
Who knows? But any theatergoer must admit that Mamet — the master of creating the male animal flailing about in desperate attempts to make something of himself — cannily transforms this silent prop into a potent metaphor for impotence that no amount of Viagra can allay. With aplomb, he also turns a day’s frantic bantering among a trio of on-edge acquaintances into a dramatic cauldron.
The setting is an overstrewn junkshop (brilliantly designed by Santo Loquasto and outfitted by props coordinator Kathy Fabian, associate props coordinator Rose Howard, and prop shoppers Jennifer Breen, Carrie Mossman, and Christina Gould) located down an alley on the wrong side of the tracks in what has to be a deteriorating urban city. Inside the shabby emporium, owner Donny Dubrow (Cedric the Entertainer) has come up with a scheme to retrieve by hook or crook a buffalo nickel he’s sold to a coin collector that may be worth more than the 90 dollars he got for it. To do so, he’s involved young and perhaps drug-addicted gofer Bobby (Haley Joel Osment) to join him in carrying out his scheme.
Plans change abruptly and menacingly when neighborhood tough guy Teach arrives, upset about the previous night’s poker losses he sustained and eager to elbow Bobby out of Don’s plan and insert himself. The verbal jockeying — with obscenities poured like salt on wounds — unfolds during Mamet’s first-act morning and continues with mounting frustration during Mamet’s second-act late evening when Fletch, a third party to the heist, fails to show up. Then, Bobby reenters with information that throws the entire hare-brained undertaking into a cocked hat, and which sparks violence turned feebly inward and bloody. Ultimately American Buffalo ends as an echo of its beginning, confirming Mamet’s view of people going around in circles.
Requirements for the actors are complex, particularly for anyone playing the sinister but ultimately lame Teach, who’s a prime example of how superb Mamet is at representing an illogical male mind at work. Leguizamo, abetted by a swipe of a mustache, gets the non sequiturs exactly right; but he misses the balance of sinister behavior masking no substance. Opposite him, the big-bellied, determinedly thoughtful Cedric and jittery, side-glancing Osment give fully-dimensional performances, which capably help raise the script to a high level — notably in the tense final minutes. When Leguizamo finds his way, the trio will be daunting and this revival may reach its full potential.