Seen And Heard

Seen on Broadway: It’s the Seventies all over again in New York, with two classics that date back to the Bicentennial era in revival. (Coincidentally, both of the original Broadway productions featured actor Kenneth McMillan.) I’ve seen David Mamet’s American Buffalo enough times to know that, while I’m fonder of other plays of his, there is no excuse for the superficial brand-name production at the Belasco. From the start—an admittedly funny entreaty to turn off “your fucking cellphones”—it’s clear that the playwright is being treated as a pop cultural commodity, and that the show’s schtick will be a lot of high-velocity swearing. But that’s not what American Buffalo is about. (It’s not all of what Mamet is about, either, but that’s what he boils down to, as his shows are revisited with greater frequency than that extended to most contemporary playwrights; Speed-the-Plow is up and running again, too.) Rather than dig deeper, director Robert Falls stays at cellphone announcement-level.

The piece, in which an unspoken paternal bond between junk shop owner Donny (played by Cedric the Entertainer) and recovering teen addict Bobby (Haley Joel Osment) is deformed by the misanthropic ravings of Donny’s friend Teach (John Leguizamo) as the three plot to rob a coin collector, is best performed more deliberately. Hitting the breaks, however, is not what an audience wants to see from “mambo mouth” co-star Leguizamo. This is his first Broadway role portraying someone other than himself, but he plays Teach with his usual excitable volatility. Leguizamo starts off sucking the oxygen from the stage, so that by the second act a shocking moment of violence streaks by at meteor speed, making little impact. A scene that should hurt us as much as the victim simply bounces off, more Mamet-lite than actual Mamet. Then again, none of the actors seem to inhabit the same space, which puts a terse play about the business of friendship at the bottom rung of the economic ladder at a further remove: in their Broadway debuts, the bulky Cedric is more entertainer than actor, while Sixth Sense star Osment, flopping an unruly head of hair to and fro, can’t bring much to Bobby except a basic vulnerability. The multi-ethnic cast operates in one dimension.

Speaking of space, much effort has gone into filling the Belasco’s stage. Just as John Napier has revisited Equus on its return, so has Santo Loquasto gone back to the drawing board for a credit that earned him a 1977 Tony nomination. A junk shop to end all junk shops, one that HGTV could spotlight if the channel ran a special about resale retail, surrounds the actors. Dwarfing the playing area on stage right and stage left are pillars of refuse, including a forest of wigs; how Donny stays afloat with all this inventory to manage is a question that Loquasto, who also designed the workaday costumes, hasn’t answered. It does, however, have an empty purpose, when half the place comes down in an ending that is more Six Flags than Mamet, with Brian MacDevitt’s otherwise restrained, rainy day lighting exploding in a shower of sparks as a bank of fixtures is ruptured. There is no credited sound designer, not that the histrionic actors needed to be better heard.

Seen Off Broadway: I trust that designers of military-themed plays know their stuff, and I can feel it when they get it right. Streamers, a Roundabout revival at the Laura Pels, has the stamp of authenticity. David Rabe’s play, the third in an acclaimed trilogy of Vietnam-era shows, is set in a Virginia army barracks in 1965, and the details, including the pinups in the lockers, thoroughly ground the piece. There is nothing flashy in this revival, presented in association with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, and for that set designer Neil Patel, costume designer Tom Broecker, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and sound designer John Gromada deserve a salute.

Rabe’s play, with its interwoven themes of racism and homosexuality, must have seemed ahead of its time in the pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” era, and is perfectly suited to ours, when the issues are on the front burner beyond the army. It was well-served by Robert Altman’s 1983 film version, which lacks only the immediacy of the playing, which director Scott Ellis has restored with a splendid cast of unknowns. (They may graduate to prominence, as Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier did from the movie.) Hale Appleman is particularly good as Richie, whose gayness is argued over by his barracks mates, an uncomfortable situation that a black outsider (Ato Essandoh) and clueless combat veterans at the station tip over into outright confrontation. No tricks, no winks to the audience, just a tough-minded, thought-provoking play brought back in mint condition.

Equipment Vendors:

American Buffalo
Scenery construction and painting: Great Lakes Scenic Studios Inc.
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Sound Associates, Inc.

Scenery construction: Global Scenic Services, Inc.
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Masque Sound

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