‘American Buffalo’ reviews: ‘Beautifully’ acted revival overshadowed by David Mamet controversy

Over two years after its slated pre-pandemic bow, the fourth production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” has arrived on Broadway. The nearly 50-year-old play takes place in a junk shop owned by Don (portrayed in this remounting by Laurence Fishburne), who has seller’s remorse over a valuable buffalo nickel and conscripts his assistant and protégé Bobby (Darren Criss) and, later, his buddy Teach (Sam Rockwell) to steal it back. Directed by Mamet’s frequent collaborator Neil Pepe, “American Buffalo” opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on April 14 for a limited run.

Much of the luster of this staging has been dulled by the recent incendiary comments by playwright Mamet. The majority of the mixed reviews of “American Buffalo” reflect on this news, remark on the strong performances from the trio of actors, and question how well the text has aged. In a negative take, Alexis Soloski (Guardian) gives the production two of five stars, calling it “finely acted” but noting “the absence of menace or pity or recognizable human feeling” in the piece. She writes, “There is pleasure, of course, in Fishburne and Rockwell’s performances,” the former lending his “natural clout” to Don and the latter bringing “tweaked-out fury,” but she says overall, “‘American Buffalo’ feels thin.”

WATCH 2022 Tony Awards slugfest: 21 productions vie for places in Play races

A bit warmer, Helen Shaw (Vulture) finds aspects of the acting and production to admire while faulting the underlying play itself. She says of the cast, “Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne, and to a less spectacular extent, Darren Criss, are clearly reveling in material worth their impressive stage mettle,” calling the overall production “certainly” good. She dedicates the bulk of her praise to the performances, since “‘American Buffalo’ works beautifully” as an acting showcase: “Rockwell has exactly the right tools to crack the Mamet safe,” while Fishburne “grips the play and captains it,” and Criss “does fine work.” Yet, Shaw could not shake what she knows about the playwright, concluding, “I watched ‘American Buffalo’ with my heart in my throat, looking for evidence of the way its author would eventually break bad.”

Not every review is so mixed, though. Jesse Green (New York Times) deems the “electric” and “crackling” production a Critic’s Pick. He commends director Pepe’s “gleeful energy” and writes of the play’s “dialogue so rewarding of careful attention, and a plot spring-loaded to keep your mind on its mechanisms.” As the other reviewers do, Green also gives kudos to the performers, highlighting Fishburne’s “beautifully considered” performance, Rockwell who makes “a great occasion of a great role,” and the “angelic if underpowered” Criss. He also emphasizes “Scott Pask’s ingenious junk shop set.”

WATCH 2022 Tony Awards slugfest: 13 productions vie for places in Musical races

Given the incredibly crowded field this season and Mamet’s recent negative headlines, it looks like “Buffalo” will struggle to gain any significant traction with the Tony Awards when nominations are announced next month. Certainly, the overall production failed to resonate with the majority of critics, which echos its low rank in our current combined odds for Best Revival. The show lags in seventh place, trailing presumed frontrunners “Take Me Out,” “for colored girls…,” “How I Learned to Drive,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Macbeth.” With 21 plays and play revivals in contention this year, two-time Tony winning producer Pepe will most likely sit out the Best Director race, too, even though we currently have him ranked in eighth overall.

The production’s best chance to shine like a polished buffalo nickel is in the acting categories. Even critics who were lukewarm on the production praised its performers, particularly Fishburne and Rockwell. Both look like very strong spoilers in the Best Actor category, where Fishburne – who has two Tony nominations including a victory for August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” in 1992 – ranks just one slot outside our predicted nominees and Rockwell just two rungs below Fishburne. Although both earned excellent notices, Rockwell has the brasher and showier role, which just might give him the edge with Tony nominators. Criss looks similarly competitive in Featured Actor according to our users who rank him in sixth place, but with such a wealth of contenders from ensemble shows like “Take Me Out,” “The Minutes,” and others, the kind but less effusive response Criss received suggests he’s farther away from a nomination that we collectively anticipate.

SEE ‘Birthday Candles’ reviews: Under-baked play features an ‘exceptionally moving’ Debra Messing

In the craft categories, Scott Pask could pull off a surprise bid for his delightfully cluttered junk shop scenic design. Pask has a stellar track record with the Tonys already with eight career nominations, winning on three occasions for “The Pillowman,” “The Coast of Utopia,” and “The Book of Mormon.” Pask does have another production in contention this season with musical “Mr. Saturday Night,” so nominators could either choose to recognize him there instead of for “Buffalo,” or he could land dual bids.

If “American Buffalo” does earn those one or two nominations, it will end up on par with past productions, which never performed very well with the Tony Awards. The original 1977 mounting received just two bids for its direction and scenic design. The first revival, staged just six years later, earned a bid for “Best Reproduction,” a category that combined revivals of both musicals and dramas. The 2008 revival fared even worse, earning no bids.

PREDICT the 2022 Tony Awards nominees now through May 3

Make your predictions at Gold Derby now. Download our free and easy app for Apple/iPhone devices or Android (Google Play) to compete against legions of other fans plus our experts and editors for best prediction accuracy scores. See our latest prediction champs. Can you top our esteemed leaderboards next? Always remember to keep your predictions updated because they impact our latest racetrack odds, which terrify Hollywood chiefs and stars. Don’t miss the fun. Speak up and share your huffy opinions in our famous forums where 5,000 showbiz leaders lurk every day to track latest awards buzz. Everybody wants to know: What do you think? Who do you predict and why?

More News from GoldDerby