How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?

The revival of David Mamet’s breakthrough 1975 play, American Buffalo (at the Atlantic Theater Company), confirms its still-invigorating, toxic power. In their monosyllabic savage incoherence, Mr. Mamet’s lowlifes in the wilderness are his funniest demolition of big business and the American Dream. As the hustler Teach puts it with near-Elizabethan eloquence: “You know what is free enterprise? The freedom of the individual … To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit. In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit. Am I so out of line on this? Does this make me a Commie?”

Mr. Mamet’s killer Chicago real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross are the natural born heirs of the losers Teach and Don in American Buffalo . (And the heirs, too, of another failed salesman, Willy Loman). But Mr. Mamet brilliantly invented a new American prototype. He combined “You are what you sell” with “You are what you steal.” The heist, score, con-the dark comedy of betrayal and cynicism, the hustler as symbol of American business-are the exhilarating calling cards of his earlier work. We’re a million miles away, it seems, from his refined contributions of late-the Wildean artificiality of his Boston Marriage , or the arch remake of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 The Winslow Boy .

Then again, Neil Pepe’s restrained new production of American Buffalo -and it can be about as restrained as a buffalo, or a ticking bomb-is more than a few miles away from the incendiary 1981 production I saw with Al Pacino as a comically psychotic Teach with dark, mad eyes. At the start of that memorable night we were literally hit with a spray of his spit as he made his fuming entrance with the now folkloric war-cry: “Fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie.”

Ruthie had given some minor grief at the local diner that caused Teach’s major explosion. (He does not have small explosions). “Only, and I tell you this, Don,” he adds later in his own distinctive argot. “Only, and I’m not, I don’t think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern bull dyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come.”

Well! At the time, I’d never heard anything like it onstage. (At home is, of course, another matter). Mr. Mamet did for violent incoherence what Harold Pinter achieved for pauses. In American Buffalo , language itself-the art of the deal-has gone vividly rotten. “The whatchamacallit is always the last to know,” says Teach, who’s fond of aphorisms. “You got to trust your instincts, right or wrong …”

“The only way to teach these people is to kill them.”

The play’s incompetent characters are Don, the owner of a junk shop who’s planning a small-time robbery (played by the veteran Philip Baker Hall), his gofer Bobby, a young junkie (beautifully acted by Mark Webber like a craven fallen angel), and Teach (a so-so William H. Macy, I’m afraid), who’s trying to muscle in on the scam. The three of them have about as much chance of success as the Three Stooges. They’re American savages in Mr. Mamet’s urban wilderness-“action talks and bullshit walks”- and as doomed as buffaloes.

“I go out there,” Teach confesses in a rare moment of quiet, halting self-revelation. “I’m out there every day. There is nothing out there. I fuck myself.”

The key bravura role belongs to Teach. But Mr. Macy’s Teach in this new production is altogether too refined to convey the swaggering, ferocious lower depths of the role. He’s a skilled Mamet performer who played Bobby in the original Buffalo at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. But he’s an actor more comfortable in the edgy minor key of his slow-burn, sexually harassed professor in Mr. Mamet’s Oleanna . He’s dressed curiously wrong in Buffalo . In his snappy gray suit and tasseled loafers, he could be about to meet someone for lunch at one of the lesser golf clubs. His Teach doesn’t get his hands dirty enough. Time bombs aren’t his game.

Mr. Macy is too clean, a most immaculate lowlife. When his Teach trashes the set, he does and he doesn’t. The inevitable violent eruption lacks primal heat. Now, the boys in True West really trash their set. They enjoy it! There’s no garbage in this Buffalo . Even the junk shop isn’t junky enough. In its artfully arranged clutter, there’s not enough mess and crap. You would guess that the guy who owned the place is a house-proud neatnik rather than one of Mr. Mamet’s bums.

American Buffalo is the last production in the Mamet retrospective season of plays at the Atlantic Theater (which he co-founded). Risky ventures, retrospectives. The dramatist can easily become locked in a period embrace; plays of their time might date in punishing fashion. The two Maria Irene Fornes dramas I caught during the Signature Theater’s tribute to her avant-garde work this season proved surprisingly lightweight for so revered a figure. And the short Mamet season turned out to be pretty disappointing for those not worshipping at the shrine.

His one-act Sexual Perversity in Chicago from the 1970’s, staged with his youthful tribute to Samuel Beckett and the School of the Absurd, Duck Variations , are curiosity pieces today. The crude macho vignettes of Sexual Perversity are no longer news, though the piece reveals Mametspeak in the making-the linguistic ticks and dislocated repetitions, the circumspect style and emotionally brutal undercurrents. But Sexual Perversity also reminds us how much better Mr. Mamet has always been at writing roles for men. The previous double-bill in the Mamet season of the inconsequential little curtain-raiser, Mr. Happiness , coupled with a stage adaptation of his radio play, The Water Engine , were not high watermarks.

An opportunity was missed with the mini-Mamet tribute at the Atlantic. A new play might have proved a stunner (and proved me wrong, for one, about the falling off of his recent work). A revisiting of his infuriating drama of sexual harassment, Oleanna , might have set us all arguing again about whether some of us were right to wish to kill the girl in the first place. A chance to revisit his goading 80-minute drama about child abuse, The Cryptogram , would have been welcome. How good is Mr. Mamet, anyway? The season should have been an exciting chance to provoke honest debate and provide an answer or two. But revivals of two curtain-raising doodles, a radio play, a dated one-acter and American Buffalo doesn’t do it. Am I wrong?