One night in the early 1970s, David Mamet sat in on a poker game played by crooks — and emerged with the idea for a play. Little did he know that American Buffalo would become a modern classic, beloved by actors and cheered by audiences around the world. This powerful and funny play of three small-time hustlers is now on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, starring Tony Award winner Laurence Fishburne, Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell, and Emmy Award winner Darren Criss. Fishburne takes on the role of Donny, a junk shop owner in Chicago who hatches a half-baked plan to steal a valuable coin collection; Rockwell plays Teach, the volatile pal who worms his way into the operation; and Criss is Bobby, Donny’s gullible young gofer. As this all-star trio gets set to revive Mamet’s breakthrough work, directed by the playwright’s frequent collaborator Neil Pepe, they chatted with Broadway Direct about the enduring brilliance of American Buffalo.
American Buffalo has been electrifying audiences for more than 40 years. Why did you want to star in a new Broadway revival?
Laurence Fishburne: I grew up in New York City, and this play was an event when it opened on Broadway in 1977. I had been lucky enough to have worked with Robert Duvall [who played Teach] in Apocalypse Now, and the writing [in American Buffalo] made such an impression on those of us who were aspiring actors. It’s a play I’ve always wanted to do.
Sam Rockwell: It’s quintessential Mamet, with amazing language and three great parts that are very different. And it’s a tragedy — everyone has good intentions at the beginning of the play, and then it all goes kerflooey.
Darren Criss: The language is like music. It’s a kind of jazz patter that is specific to David Mamet, the ultimate three-piece rhythm section, with infinite variety and nuance. People say, “This [revival] must be a dream come true for you,” and I say, “It would be, if my imagination was big enough!”
How would you describe the three men who spend their days hanging out and talking “business” in Donny’s junk shop?
Rockwell: The simplest answer is that Donny is a hero, Teach is a villain, and Bobby is out there in the stratosphere. Teach might be a narcissist or even a sociopath, but he also seems very human, and that’s what’s delicious about playing him.
Fishburne: Donny seems to be the voice of reason. But in spite of the fact that he’s older, I think he’s just as blinded and seduced as the other two by the thought of pulling off the caper they’re plotting.
Criss: Bobby has a vulnerability that opens up the vulnerability of the other characters. On the outside, they’re these very rough people, but there is something deeper and more poignant going on inside. I think Mamet does a marvelous job of showing the fractured frailty of machismo.
What makes the play a must-see event? Why does it still feel so fresh?
Fishburne: Primarily it’s [because of] the use of language. Mamet’s writing style, as it emerged in this play, was really different rhythmically; there’s lots of space in it. It opens up all kinds of possibilities for us, and it will be very, very exciting to see how audiences respond. I’m confident that people are going to enjoy it.
Criss: To start, it’s funny. And there’s something voyeuristic about watching these three knuckleheads try to be something greater than they are. Most Broadway audiences aren’t spending time with shady characters like these.
Rockwell: People talk about the “style” of the dialogue, but I find it very real. And it’s one of those plays that is very malleable in how it is interpreted. Like all the great parts, like Hamlet or Iago, there’s a lot of flexibility, which makes it fun.
Casting is crucial in American Buffalo. What excites you most about sharing the stage with your costars in this revival?
Criss: I’ve been a massive fan of Laurence and Sam for most of my life. Sam’s work has been the template for the kind of career I would like to have, and Laurence has been such an inspiration. It’s really a full-circle experience, to get to thank them for their work by working with them.
Rockwell: Both of these guys are fantastic. Darren has done Hedwig and the Angry Inch twice, and the Versace miniseries, so he’s got chops. I’m very happy they got an experienced actor as Bobby because it’s a complex role, a James Dean sort of character. And Laurence, of course, is a great, great stage actor. I saw him in Two Trains Running — he won a Tony for that — and in Thurgood, and he was incredible. I am so excited to work with them.
Fishburne: Well, Sam is a master actor, and Darren is ridiculously talented. We’re all guys who started out just wanting to act, wanting to do the work, so we can’t wait to get underway. And Mamet is a master writer, so we’re in a really sturdy ship.
Finally, what should audiences expect when we take a seat at Circle in the Square to see the three of you in American Buffalo?
Fishburne: Oh, you should expect some fireworks, I’ll tell you that much! It’s going to feel so intimate and exciting in that unusual space. Be ready to laugh, to have a whole lot of fun, and to be moved.
Rockwell: Come ready for a roller-coaster ride: It’s funny and it’s dramatic and it’s tragic. You’ll get a little bit of everything.
Criss: You’ll get to see a great American play, by a great American playwright, starring two great American actors — I don’t include myself in that category! This is the definition of great theater, and I would hate for anyone to miss it.
This interview was originally conducted in February 2020.
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