curtain call

David Mamet’s toxic masculinity rears its ugly head both on and offstage in ‘American Buffalo’

American Buffalo
(l to r) Sam Rockwell, Darren Criss and Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo. Photo by Richard Termine

Editors Note:
Earlier this week, screenwriter and playwright David Mamet appeared on Fox News, voicing his support for Florida’s newly enacted “Don’t Say Gay” law, bizarrely claiming male teachers are “inclined to pedophilia.” Below is our review of the star-studded revival of Mamet’s 1975 play American Buffalo, written prior to Mamet’s puzzling and offensive comments. Ultimately, audiences will have to decide for themselves if they can look past Mamet’s personal views for an evening of Broadway theater. We hope this review helps inform that decision.

The Rundown:

Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss meander through a revival of David Mamet’s 1975 classic, American Buffalo, as three would-be grifters in a crime-heist gone awry. Using Mamet’s patented blend of repetitive-though-rhythmic repartee, the play brings a series of character studies to life, based on Chicago’s down-on-their-luck around-the-way guys.

Related: Wigs, kaftans and body image issues take center stage in ‘To My Girls’

No Tea, No Shade:

Though it’s set in Chicago, circa 1975, if you’ve ever wandered into a pawn shop, you’ll instantly recognize the squalor of hastily sold-off possessions that populate Don’s Resale Shop (scenic design by Scott Pask). Sadly, like the beautiful gowns of a wan pop concert, that is the only nice thing to report about this underpowered relic. 

Following a blaring lights up, the show piddles into inertia with a back-and-forth between Donny (Fishburne) and his slow-on-the-uptake assistant, Bobby (Criss). It emerges that Donny and Bobby are planning to rob a patron who purchased an American Buffalo nickel from the shop for $90 (approximately $481 today) the day before. 

Darren Criss
Darren Criss in American Buffalo. Photo by Richard Termine

As luck would have it, Bobby has figured out where the patron lives and that he has just left town. While shooting the breeze with Teach (Rockwell), an associate at his weekly card game, Donny spills the beans on the scheme and agrees to bring him on to replace the inexperienced Bobby. Later that evening, while Donny and Teach are waiting for a colleague to arrive, Billy returns with news that he found another American Buffalo nickel and that this colleague has been incapacitated. 

Suspecting that Billy is behaving dishonestly, Teach pummels him in the head. It emerges that Billy was telling the truth about the attack but being dishonest when he claimed to have seen the coin collector leave town. Enraged, Teach demolishes Donny’s shop and departs with a promise to return with his car so that they can transport Billy to the hospital.

Let’s Have a Moment:

Fishburne dominates the action while serving Tony Soprano daddy vibes. He’s the straight man to Criss’ adorkable dope and Rockwell’s pugnacious pitbull. It’s easy to assume that such men are fat cats―all girth and no power―but when the shit hits the fan, Fishburne nearly rips Rockwell apart before retreating behind a beautiful mask of despair.

Laurence Fishburne
Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo. Photo by Richard Termine

Rockwell is tasked with driving much of the action, which he does well, particularly using his arms to punctuate his words as if he could spell them out through violent gestures.

Final Word:

American Buffalo is a five-minute writing exercise that meanders on for 85 minutes longer than needed and, thanks to Neil Pepe’s loagy direction, fails to investigate its mix of hetero tenderness and buffoonery. If you know someone bad at communicating, they may enjoy this performance.

American Buffalo plays through July 10, 2022, at Circle in the Square Theatre.

Juan Michael Porter II is an award-winning health & culture journalist whose coverage focuses on the intersection of Black lives, media criticism, and HIV prevention.