When David Mamet first emerged on the theater scene in the 1970s, with fast-talking dramas like “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “American Buffalo,” he earned a reputation not only for his rat-a-tat dialogue but also his incisive critique of 20th-century American capitalism and how the little guy (and let’s face it, his focus was almost always on guys) tended to get crushed amid the cutthroat demands of their corporate overlords.
“American Buffalo,” first staged in Chicago in 1975, has appeared four times on Broadway — including in a crackerjack new production that strikes at just how relevant this work remains for the current age. (The revival opened Thursday at Circle on the Square.)
In particular, director Neil Pepe and his top-shelf cast of three explore how underclass grifters adopt the language of Big Business, how demonstrations of masculinity and bravado can calcify into toxicity and how individuals can be misled by conspiracy theories and lies into shocking acts of violence. (Scott Pask’s set also helps to underscore the message, as we follow the action in the theater’s in-the-round staging through stalactites and stalagmites of junk-shop objects that suggest the detritus of American excess.)
Sam Rockwell is perfectly suited to play Teach, a jittery low-life who wheedles his way into a heist planned by junk-shop owner Don (Laurence Fishburne) over a rare coin (the American buffalo of the title). Rockwell steps into the shoes of Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, William H. Macy and John Leguizamo (in the uneven 2008 revival) — but he makes the role his own with a nervous energy and a spewing of language and conspiracy theories that seems to anticipate conservative talk radio in its stream-of-consciousness, knee-jerk prejudices and loose grip on logic.
Fishburne proves a masterful foil, both a schemer willing to operate outside the law as well as a paternal figure to his dimwitted young gofer, Bobby (“Glee” alum Darren Criss, who seems to have flipped the switch off in his eyes to dampen his natural glimmer and intelligence). More importantly, Fishburne’s Don emerges as a decent man whose fatal flaw may be credulousness, a willingness to be persuaded by dubious arguments and faulty reasoning.
It’s almost as if Mamet had foretold his own evolution from a champion of the underdog into his current public incarnation, a pro-Trump conservative who defends the one-percenters and spouts bizarre QAnon-like theories that all teachers are “inclined” to pedophilia. And that evolution may make “American Buffalo” all the more revealing of the shift in the culture of this nation.