Friday, November 21, 2008

Mamet Redux

American Buffalo
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Robert Falls
Starring Cedric the Entertainer, John Leguizamo, Haley Joel Osment

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
Performances from October 31, 2008

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Neil Pepe
Starring Raul Esparza, Jeremy Piven, Elisabeth Moss

Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Performances from October 3, 2008

Cedric, Osment and Leguizamo in American Buffalo
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Esparza, Piven and Moss in Speed-the-Plow
(photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
Longtime David Mamet fans were lukewarm to his most recent plays, Romance and November, out-and-out farces as scatological and vulgar as ever but with a “WTF” attitude that seemed to disappoint his acolytes. The plays, by the way, were also hilarious, which may have had something to do with the fact that accomplished comedic actors as Larry Bryggman and Nathan Lane were in the leads.

Whatever the case, both plays showed Mamet willing to turn away from his usual stage work, also scatological and vulgar, but–at least evidenced by the current Broadway revivals of two of his most famous plays–undramatic explorations of masculinity in contemporary America.

American Buffalo was Mamet’s breakthrough play in 1976: its tale of a trio of low-life, barely articulate hoodlums planning a rare coin heist first played Broadway with Robert Duvall and then Al Pacino, finally becoming a movie in 1996 with Dustin Hoffman. Speed-the-Plow debuted on the Great White Way in 1988 starring two of the very best Mametian interpreters, Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver, along with one of the worst (Madonna) in a slight story of movie producers with a hot property and the temp who gets between them.

In both of these generally satisfactory revivals, the main fault is Mamet’s writing. In American Buffalo, the playwright’s obvious debt to such disparate forbearers as Harold Pinter (the pauses and needless repetitions) and Samuel Beckett (the absurdism) is supplemented by Mamet’s own obscenity-laced dialogue and half-baked characterizations, as motor-mouthed Teach, laidback Donny and slow-witted teen Bobby pass one day in Donny’s junk shop. The trio’s speeches often bog down into meaningless digressions, perked up only by Teach’s “f”-bombs, which spark a few minutes of liveliness until everything winds down again, and so it goes until a final mindless act of violence.

In Robert Falls’ uncluttered staging–on Santo Loquasto’s remarkably lived-in set, with equally imposing lighting by Brian MacDevitt–Haley Joel Osmont is a sympathetic Bobby, Cedric the Entertainer an enjoyable Donny and John Leguizamo an amusing Teach (although the actor channels Pacino too often). These three able actors nearly turn Mamet’s relentless torrent of mostly empty words into a real play.

The same could be said for Speed-the-Plow, whose satiric potshots at Hollywood were already pretty feeble 20 years ago. There’s a razor-sharp satire to be made about Hollywood producers choosing commerce over art, but this isn’t it–Mamet’s own comedy about moviemaking, State and Main, was more incisive. At least the original production had two towering actors, Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver, to give the profane dialogue the rat-a-tat forward momentum it needed to sound funnier and more pointed than it actually was. (That Madonna was jaw-droppingly awful as Karen the temp was no surprise–showing what a crass publicity ploy her casting was would make for a more honestly satirical behind-the-scenes play.)

At least Neil Pepe’s decent production has its own ace in the hole: Raul Esparza, whose Charlie Fox is an exquisitely nasty caricature of a small-time Hollywood producer desperately trying to reach bigwig status that equals Silver’s controlled–and deliciously maniacal–hysteria. As Bobby Gould, Fox’s sparring partner and new boss, Jeremy Piven holds his own, although he can’t equal Mantegna’s utter brilliance as a monstrously jaded fat cat who pretends he has feelings. As Karen, Elisabeth Moss is no Madonna-like washout; still, although she tries, she’s unable to make the pivotal middle scene–when she’s out to prove to Bobby that she’s not just an easy Hollywood lay–convincing.

Of course, Karen’s blankness as a character points to Mamet’s failure to write believable female parts; he’s always been adept at writing oceans of foul-mouthed back-and-forth interplay for men, but–as these revivals blatantly demonstrate–he simply skims the surfaces of these small-time con men’s and Hollywood hustlers’ hearts of darkness.

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