Stepping Lightly

Americans shrink from the painful and complex in art, and yet they distrust with equal contempt the light, the straightforward, and the simple. If we fear the serious because it might be pompous and obscure, we also rush, usually unwisely, to respect it: Works that are heavy and somber and overlong are obviously art; works that are slyly inventive and fast on their feet are suspect. Both Mamet and O'Neill are playwrights whose work comes with that reassuring heaviness attached—though both, in their very different ways, are playful and even sly in spirit. O'Neill, who had the harder struggle articulating his intentions in dialogue, produced massive dramatic structures, weighed down with thick, repetitive speeches. Mamet's frequently parodied machine-gun repetitions, in contrast, feed into dramas that are short, quirky, and built for speed—the seriousness of our later, hurry-up era.

People put off by Mamet's quirkiness and brevity tend to read past the substance of his plays in search of something else: He's the poet of this or the indicter of that. When American Buffalo had its second New York production (the 1977 Broadway one, with Robert Duvall), the mainstream media were touting him as a spokesman for working-class America. I remember a batch of old lefties from the Voice's front-of-book staff complaining, "This guy don't know how working people talk." But there aren't any working people in Buffalo—the characters are a fence, a thief, and a recovering junkie who's an apprentice thief, professional criminals who see themselves as business entrepreneurs. The word business, proliferating in the dialogue, is one of the script's hidden refrains. "We're doing business."

This irony cuts, lightly and comically, both ways. You can, if you insist, take the play as an allegory of American business practices. At the same time, the claim is a joke on the characters' own tendency to inflate their actions: No business, not even criminal business, actually gets done; the one transaction, which takes place offstage, is that quintessentially American act, a purchase at face price, with borrowed money. The moral might be "crime does not pay," except for the script's utter lack of sententiousness and the dense pileup of other matters, psychological and social, under its ping-pongy verbal surface. Or even on that surface: The pivotal role is that of a man called Teach, whose full name can only be found in the published text. Knowledge and the act of teaching are intimately bound up with the action, and the verb teach is another of those openly hidden refrains. ("The only way to teach these people," the irate Teach says early on, "is to kill them.")

Making it look easy: W.H. Macy in American Buffalo
photo: Mark Douet
Making it look easy: W.H. Macy in American Buffalo


American Buffalo
By David Mamet
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street

A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill
Walter Kerr Theatre
Broadway and 48th Street

Teach, who wheedles his way into the business that doesn't come off, and whose paranoia brings on the climactic disaster, is the play's tonal as well as dramatic center. Varicolored, the role's open to a wide variety of interpretations—a mark of the play's quality. W.H. Macy's been knocked for playing Teach lightly, but who ever said Teach was a heavy character, or the play a ponderous piece of work? Even more curious, who would think that Macy, a Mamet specialist—he created the role of Bobby in the play's very first production—wouldn't know how to make the character tough and menacing if need be? (Full disclosure: At the Guthrie, in 1978, I directed him in Mamet's comic monologue Litko.) Robert Duvall, Broadway's Teach, was indeed a scary figure—a borderline psycho who, from his very first entrance, seemed more than likely to kill someone by the final curtain. Al Pacino's Teach, some years later, was one of the oddest exhibitions I've ever seen: A heavily stylized portrait of underworld disappointment, with a windup-toy walk, a glassy-eyed stare, and hands held, finlike, at shoulder height, it suggested a penguin playing Mamet at the Comédie-Française. Better than either of them, for my money, was New York's first Teach—salty, gnarled Mike Kellin, who poured a streak of Duvall's savagery into a sardonic sense of failure far realer than Pacino's.

Macy, more skilled than any of these as a light comedian, has enough harshness to make his own, slightly upscale version of Kellin's balance. A little classier and younger than his predecessors, he links the character's out-for-blood drive to his sense of inadequacy. The jittery body and the final smashup suggest a jailbird on a rampage; the hapless, perplexed line readings evoke Bob Hope. Director Neil Pepe clearly intends this comic lightening, for it's seconded by Philip Baker Hall's Donny, a graying, aging figure, more sincerely paternal and less ostentatiously crooked than usual. Taking away the signals of previous versions, Pepe's staging reveals other motives: Donny's personal resentment of the customer who found the rare nickel; his increasing weariness with the illegal grind; the hint that Teach, like Bobby, was once a boy Donny nurtured. While seeming to make Buffalo bouncier, gentler, less "significant," this lightened version ends up showing you more rather than less of its complex material. Tickling the brain instead of punching the gut, the performance reminds me of something Mamet inscribed on the flyleaf of a copy of Buffalo: "The only way to kill these people is to teach them."

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