Shoveling criticism at David Mamet has never been much of a challenge. On his best days, before he began his quixotically contrarian attempt to become the world's first successful conservative playwright (a stupid move by its very premise—powerful drama is not built on the conservative impulse to defend conventions), he reeked of misogyny, racism, superficiality, and all the weakness that white-male-hetero-American flesh is heir to.
But the motherfucker could write, in his own odd way, and gave a voice and style (with Chicago inflections) to a particular strain of ugliness that some people (understandably) would rather not delve into.
For those who had the stomach for that ugliness of pathetic white-male thuggery, Mamet was the go-to guy. (Though he was never a genius. Just compare him with Werner Herzog—another middle-aged white guy hypnotized by the intersection of power, violence [social and physical], and beauty, and you can see the difference between a mastermind and a guy who happened to knock out a couple of decent plays.)
American Buffalo was the passkey into small-time, double-crossing crooks in a junk shop. Glengarry Glen Ross was the passkey into puny salesman who dreamed of being important. (I'd submit that anyone who's curious about what makes Donald Trump tick, and what drives any rich man—who has the means to live in quiet leisure for the rest of his life—charge into the public spotlight, making himself look more foolish every time, only needs to read Glengarry Glen Ross. For these guys, money is only the means to an end. The end is feeling important. If they have all the money, but still don't feel important enough, they'll pull increasingly stupid stunts to scratch that itch.)
At any rate, American Buffalo at the Seattle Rep looked great on paper—promising script, actors Charles Leggett and Hans Altwies (both Stranger Genius Award short-listers who can both command a room with a mere gesture) in the leads, a big stage to play with, and director Milam Wilson (who helmed another masterpiece of masculine fucked-upedness with The Seafarer at Seattle Rep in 2009).
But somehow, with all that potential and all that talent, the production was as limp as a wet noodle. I'm confounded about why.
Leggett, whose voice can be mesmerizingly stentorian—and who I've seen steal an entire scene of Hamlet with one perfectly-timed lift of his eyebrows—was shy and whispery, even in his character's stern moments. Altwies threw the scripted tantrums of his character Teach, but they felt formulaic and actorly. Newcomer Zachary Simonson didn't have the petrified, young-junkie desperation of his character Bobby. He didn't look like he was scared to be in front of the two old characters who dominate the play; he just looked scared to be in front of an audience.
Strangest of all was the big blowup at the end, where Teach (Altwies) smashes up the junk shop in a fit of rage. These guys are supposed to make us skittish, afraid of what they might do to us or each other. But director Wilson had Altwies knock over a few lamps and then smash a rope that held a net full of pillows over his head.
Pillows. This apotheosis of Mamet rage was a light shower of pillows. It would've been a brilliant climax for a Mamet satire.
But this wasn't a satire—it was a lot of good artists with good track records who somehow went off the rails. Maybe some secret sabotaged the production: a personal problem with one of the artists, a round of the flu. Who knows? But, for whatever reason, it didn't fulfill its promise.
The best production of American Buffalo I've seen in Seattle remains the one at Theater Schmeater in 2007, directed by Aimée Bruneau. (If you want to be scared of a scene in which an actor smashes up a junk shop, go see that scene in a tiny basement theater.)
It shouldn't matter that Bruneau is a lady, but because this is Mamet—and his gender politics are at the forefront of most conversations about him—I thought I'd mention it.