The spirit of the aggressively contemporary staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it had its official opening Thursday night, remains true to Cyrano and to art. A phrase painstakingly inscribed letter by letter by actor Nima Taleghani on the back wall of Soutra Gilmour’s blond-wood set testifies to theater’s passionate devotion to chapter and verse; I’ll let the message be revealed to you freshly, for deciphering it is part of the fun.
It’s verse, though, that this “Cyrano,” directed with wizardly panache by Jamie Lloyd, seeks especially to elevate in the hip-hop stylings of Cyrano, Roxane (an incandescent Evelyn Miller) and yes, even thick-as-a-chateau -Brick Christian (Eben Figueiredo). McAvoy’s Cyrano could eviscerate an adversary with sword or fist, but it’s language he wields most ferociously. Even when the actor’s Scottish accent swallows up some of Crimp’s dynamic consonants, especially in the famous speech in which Cyrano rattles off insults at his own prodigious nose, the effect is heroically electric.
The excitement McAvoy and company are engendering on one side of the East River can at key moments be felt on the other side, in the revival of a modern classic. That would be David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” at Broadway’s Circle in the Square, where — in its fourth Broadway incarnation since 1977 — it officially opened, also Thursday night. The trio of Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne and Darren Criss anchors the piece in dynamite style.
Mamet’s best work — we won’t speak of some of his deeply flawed efforts of the past decade — is activated by the art of the shoddy deal. In “Speed-the-Plow” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he laid muscular waste to the movie and real estate businesses, respectively. In “American Buffalo,” staged by Neil Pepe, longtime Mamet collaborator and artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, his targets are three connivers, druggies and sleazes — Donny (Fishburne), Bobby (Criss) and Teach (Rockwell) — who meet in Donny’s Chicago junk shop to plan a comically inept burglary.
Mamet’s trademark in “American Buffalo” is the epithet-laden street talk that so majestically captures the cadences of small-time hustlers. “The only way to teach these people is to kill them,” Rockwell’s Teach mutters in one of his logic-twisted asides, which the actor delivers with his own funny, offbeat, lowlife magnetism. His captivating Teach is the hair-trigger-tempered, cowardly bull in Donny’s cluttered shop—where the characters are as much discards as the bric-a-brac. And much of this quicksilver evening’s pleasure is simply in watching Rockwell lob the verbal grenades that Fishburne’s Donny deftly dodges and Criss’s pathetic Bobby absorbs.
It is difficult, though, to reconcile the elegant vulgarity of “American Buffalo” with the more bizarre sort that the playwright himself has been spewing of late on television. One hesitates to drag the ridiculous public commentary of a writer—even one as celebrated as Mamet—into a review. In this case, however, his incendiary claim last weekend on Fox News — “that teachers are inclined, particularly men, because men are predators, to pedophilia” — has to be repudiated, as vile and a stain on his reputation. As the son of a teacher, I was sickened. And he might have made attending one of his plays emotionally untenable.
But a job is a job, good theater is good theater, and this company deserves its due because “American Buffalo” holds up well. Pepe’s production on Circle in the Square’s three-sided thrust stage — accessorized strikingly by set designer Scott Pask with what look like 100,000 items from a third-rate yard sale — plugs satisfyingly to the play’s circuits of misguided aspiration and violence. Still, it is the full-bore infusion of the tragicomedy’s soft side, as it applies to Donny’s parental feelings for Bobby, that is lacking.
The gist of “American Buffalo” is Donny and Bobby’s idiotic plot to steal back from a well-heeled collector an American “buffalo head” nickel he bought from Donny — for what Donny and Teach now believe was a song. Their buffoonish bluster masks a deeper pain in the play—in particular, the pain relating to Teach’s jealousy and the need for Donny to help steer clueless, aimless Bobby out of addiction.
Criss affects a touching dullness as a junkie with no likely path out of bottom feeding, and Fishburne, in the play’s most challenging role, gives the production a glimpse of the better man Donny could be. Maybe all that is needed here is a tad more emotional clarity, amid all that clutter.
It feels important to return to the impact of “Cyrano de Bergerac” — transcendent, with no foolish outside baggage attached. With a cast of 18, director Lloyd and dramatist Crimp put on display the joy of a venture that demonstrates the renewable power of live theater, especially in reinvented form. The facial attribute bedeviling Cyrano is nowhere visible, but the combative defensiveness of the title character still is, and brilliantly. Rap battles take the place of duels in this virile production, performed on a set as blank as the pages of a drama that might yet be written.
This “Cyrano” centers the freedom that new forms of drama betoken, and all the ways that the writing of the past can feed them — from Rostand to Emily Dickinson. McAvoy takes like a battle-tested Marine to his role as commander in this smart, stylish enterprise, a worthy re-equipping of a warhorse if there ever was one.
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand in a new version by Martin Crimp. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Set and costumes, Sutra Gilmour; lighting, Jon Clark; composition and sound, Ben and Max Ringham. With Tom Edden, Vaneeka Dadhria, Adrian Der Gregorian, Nima Taleghani. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through May 22 at BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. bam.org.
american buffalo, by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Set, Scott Pask; suits, Dede Ayite; lighting, Tyler Micoleau. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through July 10 at Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St., New York. download.com.