NEW YORK — Tenderness is not the first quality one generally associates with David Mamet. But really study his characters, and you’ll find that many are drawn with sympathy and even affection.
For the new Broadway revival of American Buffalo (*** out of four), which opened Monday at the Belasco Theatre, director Robert Falls has done his homework. Approaching Mamet’s celebrated account of three losers bound by complementary failings, Falls and his cast ease the pace and intensity of the distinctly jazzy dialogue rhythms and emphasize the underlying pathos that truly — more than the four-letter words or the sudden bursts of violence — makes this play disturbing. This isn’t the most titillating American Buffalo you’ll ever see, but I doubt that many productions have made the thwarted humanity of these men more accessible or moving.
The actors playing junk-shop owner Donny Dubrow and his undistinguished associates surely represent one of the more unpredictable companies in recent seasons. Comedian/actor Cedric the Entertainer and child star Haley Joel Osment, both Broadway newcomers, portray Donny and Bobby, a young protÃ©gÃ© of sorts whose constant requests for money hint at a tangled, troubled life.
Stage and screen veteran John Leguizamo completes the dysfunctional triangle as Walter “Teacher” Cole, a more experienced thug and wannabe player threatened by Donny’s plan to enlist Bobby as his ally in a very petty theft. Teach, as the others call him, talks tough but clearly has trouble getting things done, and Leguizamo establishes him straight away as a blowhard and a clown, a guy who would be insufferable if he weren’t so entertaining.
But as their plans go awry, and Teach grows more desperate and careless, the actor makes him sadder and more familiar. He becomes the friend’s brother who can’t get his act together, or that strange uncle who can make you laugh, even though you feel sorry for him or he kind of gives you the creeps.
Bobby, in comparison, seems passive and deferential; he’s the most flagrant beta male of the trio, and Osment’s sweetly guileless performance makes us feel particular protectiveness and pity. When Donny praises or chides him, the father-son dynamic is unmistakable, and when Teach pounces on him, it’s difficult not to wince.
It’s Cedric, though, who lends the most warmth to this production. With his booming voice, expressive face and formidable girth, he can seem at once intimidating and cuddly. He’s a paternal figure not only to Donny but to Teach as well, alternately stern and reassuring, a force of relative stability and comfort in Mamet’s existential jungle.
While you won’t want to imagine trading places with any of these guys, you’ll have no problem feeling their pain.