Ssssssssst. That whooshing noise coming from the Belasco Theater is the sound of the air being let out of David Mamet’s dialogue. Robert Falls’s deflated revival of Mr. Mamet’s “American Buffalo” — which opened on Monday night with the mixed-nut ensemble of John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment — evokes the woeful image of a souped-up sports car’s flat tire, built for speed but going nowhere.
That was hardly the effect when “American Buffalo” made its debut in the mid-1970s, first in Mr. Mamet’s native Chicago and later in New York. Critics and audiences of that time were knocked over by the gale force of a brand-new, relentlessly aggressive voice in American theater — one that turned sputtering, low-life inarticulateness into a sleek, smokin’ juggernaut of words. Adjectives like “sizzler,” “searing” and “dynamite” were immediately applied.
They can still be used to describe “American Buffalo,” which age has not withered or staled. It remains, with “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1984), Mr. Mamet’s most affecting and gripping play, finding far-reaching depths of humor, pathos and tension in the inept plans of three small-time criminals to steal a coin collection. On the page it has far more emotional richness and lingering power than the Hollywood satire “Speed-the-Plow,” the other Mamet three-hander in revival on Broadway this season.
Yet if you’re choosing only one play by Mr. Mamet to see this season, “Speed-the-Plow” wins hands down. And that’s because Neil Pepe’s production — starring Raul Esparza, Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss — fulfills the most essential requirement for performing Mamet: the sense of a tenuous, ultimately shabby universe held in place by a shared, self-aggrandizing language. In the latest version of “American Buffalo,” the words feel too limp to stick together, and each character seems to have a different mother tongue.
This is a resounding disappointment, given the talent of those involved. Mr. Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, has been responsible for two of the most impressive Broadway revivals of recent years: “Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Cedric the Entertainer and Mr. Osment, both in their Broadway debuts, have cut memorable swaths in film: Cedric in movies like “The Original Kings of Comedy” and “Barbershop,” and Mr. Osment as the uncanny child star of “The Sixth Sense.”
Mr. Leguizamo has already established himself as an electric, tirelessly mutable stage performer playing an assortment of roles in plays of his own creation, including “Freak” and “Sexaholix ... A Love Story.” His raging energy in those shows, channeled into varied, surprisingly complete-feeling characterizations of fraught lives on the margins of society, would seem to make him a natural for the role of Walter Cole (known as Teach), the logorrheic, strutting schemer who dodges the fear that he’s a very little man by talking big and nonstop. (Robert Duvall and Al Pacino have scrawled indelible signatures on the part.)
Yet it’s when Mr. Leguizamo’s Teach makes his entrance into the densely cluttered junk shop run by Donny Dubrow (Cedric) that you realize that this “American Buffalo” is bound to sag. Teach’s arrival is heralded by a clattering overture of stomping and knocking, and the noise disrupts the drowsiness of its opening minutes, listlessly occupied by Donny and his young protégé and sometime assistant, Bobby (Mr. Osment). “Ah,” you think, “here come the fireworks.”
Yet this Teach is a sodden squib from the get-go. As Mr. Leguizamo plays him, he’s an uncertain, unsteady figure, spouting his macho, know-it-all talk without even the illusion of self-belief. His outsize nervous gestures, including perpetual gum chewing, register as mere space-fillers. The gaping silences in his speech fight against his ruling the room, as he must. (It didn’t help that Mr. Leguizamo didn’t seem entirely on top of his lines at the preview I attended.) And it’s hard to credit that Donny would let the robbery he’s been plotting with Bobby be taken over by Teach.
That Donny is the default center of this “American Buffalo” says how seriously out of balance it is. Cedric, a veteran of stand-up, is obviously at his ease on a stage, and his low-key, naturalistic performance registers inappropriately large in ways that go beyond his hefty physique. His Donny is a staid, dominating anchor to Teach’s flibbertigibbet, the George Burns, if you will, to Mr. Leguizamo’s Gracie Allen.
Comparisons with yin-and-yang comedy pairs are not out of place here. I also thought of “The Odd Couple” and of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton in “The Honeymooners” (a television classic that was adapted into a film starring Cedric). Alternately, you could describe this production as a dysfunctional “Father Knows Best,” with Cedric’s Donny playing long-suffering, eye-rolling paterfamilias to his crazy surrogate sons, Teach and Bobby. (Mr. Osment’s facial stubble and slumping posture fail to override the impression that he’s giving a perfect School of Disney juvenile performance.) The rhythms of this production are those of a sitcom, with lots of empty space between lines to let audiences fully register jokes and outlandish figures of speech.
Such an approach saps the strength of “American Buffalo,” which should be sustained by Teach’s fierce, delusional energy, until it is punctured in the play’s final moments. Though Teach is clearly born to lose, we have to experience the coercive force that emerges from his desperation. Nobody appears desperate here. Well, not the characters, anyway; the actors are another matter.
The designer Santo Loquasto has provided an opera-scaled pack rat’s palace of a set, which might in other circumstances be a piquant metaphor for the useless detritus that clutters the lives and minds of the men who hang out in Danny’s shop. In this case, though, the characters appear to be just visiting an exotic and unmapped land that baffles and finally overwhelms them.
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 protégé 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.
When "American Buffalo" is done right, the profane poetry of David Mamet's dialogue can be bracing and the sad desperation of its three minor-league crooks -- playing at being players -- has a poignant sting. But in the three decades since the play was first seen, the influence of its speech patterns has become increasingly pervasive in films, cable TV and imitative theater, while humanized hoodlums have turned up everywhere. Maybe that's why this starry revival sits so flatly on its impressive set. Or maybe it's the lack of a connective thread among its performers. Either way, something isn't working.
Following "Speed-the-Plow" as Broadway's second Mamet remount this season, "American Buffalo" is generally considered a superior play. But Robert Falls' production drains much of the humor, urgency and anxiety from the piece, letting it amble along like an inflated actors' exercise in sustaining atmosphere without action.
This is a play in which very little happens. Spurred by a visit from a customer who slapped down $90 for a buffalo-head nickel, Chicago junkshop owner Don (Cedric the Entertainer) hatches a plan to steal a collection of rare coins. Wanting in on the deal, his volatile hustler buddy Teach (John Leguizamo) persuades Don to shut out clueless junkie Bobby (Haley Joel Osment), whom the shopkeeper treats like an exasperating son.
The robbery never happens, but the shifting allegiances, petty jealousies, inflamed suspicions and gnawing frustrations make this trio of doomed, delusional losers the source of combustible drama. Or at least that's how it should work. Without the underscoring only suggested in Mamet's text, the play is all talk.
The three men are distinctly different types -- even more so with this production's multiethnic casting -- yet they all inhabit the same world. However much they deceive themselves with their bluff personas and blustery language, that world is a shabby, no-win place -- as valueless as the layer upon layer of discarded paraphernalia that lines every nook and shelf of Santo Loquasto's fascinating but overwhelming set.
Even unseen figures like poker-game regulars Grace and Ruthie or fellow crook Fletch come alive in Mamet's play, which obliquely but vividly conjures the seedy, underclass world in which these scheming lowlifes are imprisoned by their lack of class, education or intelligence. But if the characters don't seem to be bristling against their entrapment, the emotional stakes are lowered.
Falls has proven himself repeatedly to be an exceptional director with actors. But while he gets capable work out of all three cast members on the surface, his naturalistic approach is not suited to Mamet's muscularly theatrical language. The actors too rarely get under their characters' skins to expose the bitter insecurity lurking there. If Don, Teach and Bobby don't have at least some nagging sense of the hopelessness of their lives and the impossibility of their big dreams: bye-bye pathos.
Dynamic as he is, Leguizamo's flashy tricks are part of the problem. There's neither self-pity nor self-loathing in his vigorous performance, only cocky self-awareness. His twitchy, highly physicalized style is fun to watch and he puts a flavorsome bite on the language. But we've seen this macho attitudinizing too often to make us curious enough to wonder what's underneath. The actor's work is too mechanical to convey how pathetic the ironically nicknamed Teacher really is -- tireless in his search for approval and deeply paranoid beneath his tough-guy facade.
Apart from standup, Cedric is a far less experienced stage actor but his ease and natural command here are remarkable, hinting at some remaining integrity under Don's weary indifference. And Osment makes Bobby a dim, vulnerable kid, lurking about, timidly looking for guidance while at the same time feeding the uncertainty that he may be shrewder than he acts.
While the individual performers are solid, the surrogate father-son bond between Don and Bobby is inadequately developed. That makes Teach's behavior toward the kid seem like arbitrary meanness, not the threat of exclusion, and it makes Don's inaction less wrenching than it should be when he stands by and lets Bobby be brutalized.
The writing's manic edge can still be exciting and the explosion of violence at the play's climax still packs a nasty punch. But the production loses sight of some of the deeper meanings behind the botched heist plans and beneath all the words -- the impotence of dead-end lives; the limits of honor among men; the competitive nature of friendship; the pitiful aping of "businessman" behavior even on capitalism's most forlorn fringes; the clumsy struggle for self-respect. With all the current talk about the failure of the free-market economy, the subtext of Mamet's sly take on commerce should sizzle. Instead, it gets lost in what ends up being simply a character study.
Unlike "Glengarry Glen Ross" three seasons back or even the second-tier "Speed-the-Plow" this year, this hollow revival makes an unconvincing case for the enduring merits of one of Mamet's breakthrough works.