PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: American Buffalo — An Effin' Proposition

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: American Buffalo — An Effin' Proposition
Right before the curtain was raised at the Belasco Nov. 17 on the third Broadway production of American Buffalo, a sonorous voice filled the theatre, announcing that the author of the evening's entertainment, "David Mamet, requests that you turn off your f______' cellphones." It got a laugh that wouldn't have been there 33 years ago.
Cedric the Entertainer, Haley Joel Osment, John Leguizamo and Robert Falls
Cedric the Entertainer, Haley Joel Osment, John Leguizamo and Robert Falls Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The word is too much with us now, its shock absorbers have been worn down by abusive overuse, and we can see clearly now that what Mamet was really writing was a comedy of manners — bad manners perhaps, but manners all the same.

Profane palaver was just his way of getting our attention, and the rep he has built from this arrival play is impressive. He has become one of our major American playwrights and, as he has moved on, gone easy on the F-word. Here, it's dribbled like the basketball at a Lakers game — 45 times in the first act and 43 in the second, by human count — which is still not as common as the middle name of Cedric the Entertainer, who drops his body-weight worth of it during the course of the play as the proprietor of Don's Resale Shop in a particularly dreary urban hellhole.

Even young Haley Joel Osment, with a thatch of new-mown scruffiness to offset his saintly face, is driven to use the word on one or two occasions, as the flunkie Bobby, a druggie-on-the-mend. But the primary purveyor of the word — the wildman on the premises, a bull-in-a-china-shop accident just waiting to happen amid all that junk-yard clutter — is "Teach," the macho-man-in-residence masterminding the heist of a prized buffalo-head nickel with no mind to speak of, just helium and a nasty motor-mouth.

It's the first word out of John Leguizamo's mouth when he hits the stage, a human cyclone searching for a place to set down, smarting from the slight of a friend who'd taken him to the cleaners in a card game the night before, but over breakfast had the crust and temerity to deny him a slice of her toast. (I said it was slight.)

"F______' Ruth!" he rants five times running. "David Mamet wrote an iambic pentameter, like Shakespeare did — everything's in five," Leguizamo explained to me later, tongue in cheek, when the Belasco crowd reconvened for the party and poetry appreciation at 230 Fifth Avenue, a swanky new club at 27th Street on the 20th floor. Leguizamo's job with the scene is to arrive as Vesuvius, spewing primal anger all over the place, and it is no easy Method of getting there for the actor. "I gotta go dark," he admitted. "I gotta go to some really scary, f___ed-up places inside myself. My whole body is wrecked from holding all this rage inside me. I box, I do push-ups, I do pull-ups, I yell, I curse, I visualize all my enemies — that seems to work the best."

The American Buffalo trio may seem ethnically and aesthetically far-flung, but they do have common ground, their director pointed out. None of them has been in a Broadway play with other people. Leguizamo has starred exclusively on Broadway in solo pieces, while Cedric and Osment are making their Broadway debuts. Leguizamo went to NYU and Osment is currently taking the semester off (he's a junior there and didn't want to divide himself doing Broadway and homework).

It was a rude jolt to the system, but Leguizamo enjoyed it and fell right in line with it. "I love it," he happily insisted. "What a relief! Other people to take the blame!"

There was precious little blame going around on opening night because the play's director, Robert Falls, had cast the piece so carefully — and eclectically enough to make it worth doing again. "No, it wasn't darts," he said of his casting methods. "I actually love these three actors, and I sorta need this whole idea of this cast, these new guys, to rethink the show. This is my first time directing it, although I've been around it so much in the theatre and I remember various versions so well. But it wasn't ever a classic to me, and I need this cast to help me find new things in it."

Falls, who is artistic director of the Goodman Theatre and an all-round major player in Chicago theatre (he produced Leguizamo's solo shows there), is equally well-known on Broadway for his frequent forays with Tony-winning revivals that usually star a Tony-winning Brian Dennehy (Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night). In two weeks, he and Dennehy will crank up another one.

"I'll be back in the spring with Desire Under the Elms by [Eugene] O'Neill," he said. "It's the first time it's been on Broadway since the Walter Huston original in 1924." [Actually, Karl Malden and Jocelyn Brando had a 40-performance run of it at the ANTA in 1952.] "It'll start at the Goodman with Brian, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber — a very exciting cast. Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel and Steve Traxler are producing it, and it'll be on Broadway at a Shubert theatre in March or April."

"John is the first guy I said to Dave Mamet I would like to do this piece with," Falls relayed, and, when Leguizamo accepted with enthusiasm, the director aimed his spyglass at Cedric the Entertainer. "I've been a huge fan of his. I saw him in concert, and I've been thinking for a long time, 'This is a guy I gotta work with sometime.' I had this instinct that he had this tremendous power as an actor — serious and moving — so I went out to L.A. and spent some time with him, and, based on that, I said, 'We gotta do this.' Also, he's unusual. We sent him the script, and, from the moment we sent him the script, he said, 'You're right. I gotta.' There aren't a lot of guys like this, who are that brave to take that risk and say they gotta do that work."

Cedric didn't mind admitting he leapt at the bait. "It's something that I wanted to try to conquer," he said. "I wanted to have the opportunity to say on my resume that I performed on Broadway. But I had no idea it was going to be this much work. It's totally different than film. With a movie, you read the script once or twice, and then you prepare to do your scenes. You go out and get your close-up and your wide- and your medium-shots, and then you go to the trailer. With this, once the curtain goes up, you're out there the whole time and holding it down, so it has been really tough.

"I'm never off stage in this play. David Mamet, of course, has a lot of words, a lot of wordplay, a lot of subtext. You gotta go and listen to what he has written, and then break it down and see what you really mean by that and try to give it some depth."

Becoming a team-player was a happy transition for him. "That's the other thing. Usually as a standup, I'm usually in control of that live audience. I'm used to performing in front of a live audience, but it's what I want to do, it's where I want to take them, and I have the opportunity to abbreviate and jump off and change the course if I feel like the energy is changing. But here you're performing someone else's words, and you gotta deliver them, man. It's tough. And you also gotta make sure you hold everything up for your co-stars. You give them their cues and make it so that they know where they're going to go next. And that's a great responsibility."

He caught the 1996 "American Buffalo" movie that Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz did, and he didn't think much of it. "It was a little slower and hard to watch. We tried to move it along. I thought it was great that we had this multicultural cast, and it feels modern. It feels like the world that we live in today. I'm excited about doing a nice little run."

Come Dec. 5, he will have his own movie out there, "Cadillac Records," in which he plays songwriter Willie Dixon who composed for the likes of Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Revetta Chess (Emmanuelle Chriqui), Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). "It really shows the evolution of music. I've tried to listen to a lot of blues — I'm from St. Louis, and that's a very blues town — but to see in this how blues led to rock 'n' roll, rock 'n' roll led to R&B, R&B led to hip-hop — all these things, and the genesis came from these guys that was kinda playing this bluesy folk music."

Osment had fallen off Falls' radar into academia, but not for long. "Frankly, we really wanted to find a name actor who was young," the director said. "I think, along with Shirley Temple, he's the greatest child actor of all time. I knew he was in NYU, and again I said, 'Let's get together.' He knew the play, loved it, wanted to take the risk."

It was a risk, too, going from "The Sixth Sense" to Five Cents, from seeing dead people to seeing drug people. "But I think that's what's interesting," Falls noted, "that drug addicts and heroin addicts are not always these skuzzy guys. He can be a perfectly innocent-looking guy who is completely messed up on drugs. I think the important thing about that character is that he is trying to stay off drugs so, during the course of the play, he's clean and I think Haley's just a remarkable young actor."

Emily Osment, Tamara Tunie, Tommy Tune and Kathleen Turner, Dominique and Al Sharpton, Maureen with Steven Van Zandt, and NYC Commissioner of Theatre Katharine Oliver
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Anyone who plays Bobby has the option of how darkly to color his situation, Osment contended. "It's up to us in each production to decide on what the measure of his addiction is and how that has concrete effect on his actions in the play, because Bobby spends a lot of mysterious time off-stage. It's unclear what he's doing." There was enough for him to like about the character to create a performance that touches. "You have to find something you like about every character you're playing, even if they do things that aren't in line with what you would do personally. There's a lot of sympathy that I have for Bobby, and I think that the audience eventually has for Bobby, because he's trying to do the right thing, but he always screws up."

If anything, Osment admitted he was high from breaking into a professional clearing and finally taking his bow as a Broadway actor. "It's thrilling to be here. Just thinking of when we started this process in rehearsal, it's wild to think of the distance between then and now, and how much more we have learned about the material."

Elliot Martin, who is lead-producing this American Buffalo with Ben Sprecher and produced the previous Broadway revival with Al Pacino, denied that he was going to keep producing it until he got it right. "I completely got it right before," he shot back. "That was a powerhouse performance from Pacino. I didn't like the original production so much. There was no humor in it. It was all tension and unhappiness. But I think this production brings the humanity out in these three guys, and they need one another. There is a love and respect shown here between these three street guys that we didn't have with Pacino. Pacino was just too powerful a force." Mamet's absence from the festivities went vaguely unexplained — it has become par for the Mamet course — but Martin did acknowledge a sighting recently. "He was here when we just first went into rehearsal, and we went down in the Village to hear his wife [and frequent leading lady in his films, Rebecca Pidgeon] sing in a club."

Set designer Santo Loquasto (who designed the original clutterful set as well) and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt took a thorough paparazzi blasting but feigned indifference. Said one to the other: "Where do these pictures go? We never get them."

Jerry Seinfeld led the list of opening-night celebrities, but not so you noticed. There is no photographic evidence of his speed-by. Even the in-house photog missed him.

Kathleen Turner and Tommy Tune, an improbable pair ordinarily, headed up the "T" contingent apparently, followed by Tamara Tunie (not producing, just looking pretty). Tune was there, graciously supporting Falls — a silent favor since Turn of the Century, his new show written by Jersey Boys' Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, just closed at Chicago's Goodman. "Now we're doing our fixing on it, and we're standing in line waiting for a theatre," said Tune. "I think it will be in the summer, maybe." When it does come to Broadway, Jeff Daniels and Rachel York will star.

Other first-nighters: Michael Wilson (who's directing the other Broadway opening this week, Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate), Rev. Al Sharpton, a bandana-ed Steven Van Zandt, a skimpily attired Emily Osment (sister of the star and regular on "Hannah Montana"), radio's Tom Joyner, columnist George Rush, publisher Glenn Young ("I'm starting a new imprint for fiction, publishing novels, so get to work — immediately"), Richard Osterweil (whose documentary on party-town Manhattan, "Painting the Town," comes out on DVD this month — "with extras on it"), and Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.

One last note: The lady in L-111 not only ignored the instructions to turn off her cellphone but actually answered her cellphone in the middle of the performance.

Mamet has a word for it.

The cast of <i>American Buffalo</i> at curtain call.
The cast of American Buffalo at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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