The spirit of the aggressively contemporary staging of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it had its official opening on Thursday night, remains true to Cyrano and the art. A phrase painstakingly inscribed letter by letter by actor Nima Taleghani on the back wall of Soutra Gilmour’s blonde wood set testifies to the theater’s passionate devotion to chapter and verse; I will let the message be revealed to you freshly, because deciphering it is part of the fun.
It is, however, verses that this “Cyrano”, directed with wizarding panache by Jamie Lloyd, seeks above all to elevate in the hip-hop styles of Cyrano, Roxane (an incandescent Evelyn Miller) and yes, even thick as a castle – Christian brick (Eben Figueiredo). McAvoy’s Cyrano could eviscerate an opponent with sword or fist, but that’s the language he wields most fiercely. Even when the actor’s Scottish accent engulfs some of Crimp’s dynamic consonants, particularly in the famous speech in which Cyrano spouts insults at his own prodigious nose, the effect is heroically electric.
The excitement that McAvoy and company engender 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 on 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 go into some of his deeply flawed efforts of the last decade – is enabled by the art of bad business. In “Speed-the-Plow” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he squandered muscle in the film and real estate sectors, respectively. In “American Buffalo,” directed by longtime Mamet collaborator and Atlantic Theater Company artistic director Neil Pepe, his targets are three accomplices, drug addicts and sleazes – Donny (Fishburne), Bobby (Criss) and Teach. (Rockwell) – who meet at Donny’s Chicago flea market to plan a comically inept heist.
Mamet’s trademark in “American Buffalo” is the epithet-laden street talk that so majestically captures the cadences of petty hustlers. “The only way to teach these people is to kill them,” Rockwell’s Teach mutters in one of his logically twisted asides, which the actor delivers with his own funny, offbeat, lowlife magnetism. His captivating Teach is the cowardly, temperamental bull in Donny’s cluttered shop – where the characters are as much scrap as junk. And much of the fun of this Mercury night is just watching Rockwell throw the verbal grenades which Fishburne’s Donny deftly dodges and Criss’ pathetic Bobby absorbs.
It’s hard, however, to reconcile the elegant vulgarity of “American Buffalo” with the more bizarre genre that the playwright himself has spewed on television lately. One hesitates to drag the ridiculous public commentary of a writer, even as famous as Mamet, into a magazine. In this case, however, her incendiary assertion last weekend on Fox News – “that teachers are prone, especially men, because men are predators, to pedophilia” – must be repudiated, for she is vile and sully his reputation. As a teacher’s son, I was sickened. And that could have made it emotionally unbearable to attend one of his plays.
But a job is a job, good theater is good theater, and this company deserves its due because “American Buffalo” is holding its own. Pepe’s production on Circle in the Square’s three-sided push stage – strikingly accessorized by set designer Scott Pask with what looks like 100,000 items from a third-rate garage sale – plugs in satisfyingly on the circuits of the room of misguided aspiration and violence. Yet it is the full infusion of the soft side of tragicomedy, as it applies to Donny’s parental feelings for Bobby, that is lacking.
The gist of “American Buffalo” is Donny and Bobby’s silly plot to steal from a well-heeled collector an American “buffalo head” nickel he bought from Donny – for what Donny and Teach now believe to be a song . Their buffoonish bluster masks a deeper pain in the room — specifically, the pain of Teach’s jealousy and Donny’s need to help lift the distraught, aimless Bobby out of addiction.
Criss affects a touching dullness as a likely dead-end bottom-feeding junkie, and Fishburne, in the play’s toughest role, gives the production a glimpse of the better man Donny could be. Maybe all that’s needed here is a little more emotional clarity, amidst all this clutter.
It’s important to go back to the impact of “Cyrano de Bergerac” – transcendent, without any insane outside baggage. With a cast of 18, director Lloyd and playwright Crimp staged the joy of a venture that demonstrates the renewable power of live theater, especially in a reimagined form. The facial attribute that plagues Cyrano isn’t visible anywhere, but the main character’s combative defensiveness still is, and brilliantly so. Rap battles take the place of duels in this virile staging, played on a stage as blank as the pages of a drama that could still be written.
This “Cyrano” centers the freedom that new forms of theater herald and all the ways in which writing from the past can nurture them – from Rostand to Emily Dickinson. McAvoy takes his role as commander like a battle-tested Marine in this smart and elegant enterprise, a refit worthy 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. Sets and costumes, Soutra 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. Until May 22 at the BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. bam.org.
American buffalo, by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Together, Scott Pask; suits, Dede Ayite; lighting, Tyler Micoleau. About 1h40. Through July 10 at Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St., New York. download.com.