The Great Rip-Off at the Belasco



The extremely miscast revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo at the Belasco Theatre is one more depressing instance of confusing the screen actor with the stage actor. They possess different skills. We don't expect hockey stars to play NFL football, so why, again and again, do we see untrained screen or television actors taking lead roles on Broadway? Is this just one more case of the dumbing-down of America? The producers fear that audiences won't come without big names that they recognize.

For the discerning theatergoer it means paying a very high-ticket price for a very uneven aesthetic experience. It's the opposite in London, where the National Theatre consistently casts plays with top stage actors. At least you know you are pretty well guaranteed fine acting when you purchase a ticket there.

Mamet's plays require utterly committed, often fierce, and spot-on performances by actors trained to maintain their full concentration for two hours. His plays are miracles of language, often profane, cruel, humorous, and desperate. What we get in this Robert Falls-directed production is Cedric the Entertainer as Donny, the junk shop owner; John Leguizamo as Teach, the self-serving second story man; and Haley Joel Osment as Bobby, the somewhat dim young gofer for Donny. Both Osment and Cedric are making their Broadway debuts, and together they just about sink this ship. Neither has the energy nor the variety to bring his part alive. Cedric is pleasant and lethargic; Osment is pathetic and dull. Each of them gives the term "one note performanc" new meaning. (Of course the director should probably take some of the blame for this lack of excitement.)

Only Leguizamo has the acting chops to carry off the role of Teach, and he does a masterful job of injecting some life into the scene. But he is quite alone in his efforts. It's one man whirling about the stage spewing out language and raw anxiety, bringing a character alive, and it's two others mostly slumped in what looks like exhaustion. The incongruity makes me think that the casting was done by the same people who ran now-defunct dating services -- the kind that would set up a witty, city woman with a depressed accountant from the outer boroughs and wonder why no romance occurred. I can imagine them planning this production: let's see, a large black man would be cool casting for Donny, and being big he will be able to play boss effectively. We call this casting on the surface. Then for Bobby how about a really young actor from Tinsel Town, someone who looks kind of abused. And the young crowd will come. Wrong.

It's akin to choosing an extremely uninformed but folksy woman from a state with fewer than a million in population, way up in the boonies, and thinking you can pass her off as a likely vice presidential candidate. Just keep her away from the press and no one need learn that she doesn't know what countries are in North America, or whether Africa is a country or a continent. Hey, it's far away and you can't see it from Alaska. Give her a break.

The reason for my rant is that the power of theatre -- an art form I deeply believe in -- is being sapped by these crassly commercial decisions. It would not take three years to earn a graduate degree in theater at Yale if acting were not a skill that requires intense training. Almost anyone can look good on the screen for three- to five-minute takes. Stage acting is like a marathon. It requires serious chops. And just as one goes to the opera to hear great singing, one goes to Broadway to see great acting. It's what we pay the big bucks for. It's what we deserve.

So Mamet is ill served. The audience is ill served. And even the actors struggling up there on stage to keep the corpse from stinking would probably have done better to start their theatrical careers in a non-Broadway venue. American Buffalo is about petty criminals trying to rip-off a coin collector, and they prove unskilled in their endeavor. It is we in the audience who actually get ripped off. Ah well. In economic times such as these, there are bigger disappointments to consider. 

Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, scheduled to run through April 19, 2009