(Sarah Larson’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 4/4/22; Illustration: Sam Rockwell, Darren Criss, Laurence FishburneIllustration by João Fazenda.)
“American Buffalo” ’s Laurence Fishburne, Darren Criss, and Sam Rockwell ruminate on junk and iambic pentameter on a visit to a thrift shop.
Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss, who star in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” at Circle in the Square, and Neil Pepe, who directs it, met up the other day at a West Side thrift shop called No Particular Hours (“Vintage Goods / Industrial Artifacts / Dead People’s Things”). The play, from 1975, is about three desperate characters in a junk shop; the group had planned to visit one in March, 2020, shortly before the show’s opening; two years later, there they were. The proprietor, Jerry Lerner—tall, grizzled, fisherman’s cap—let them wander, offering occasional commentary. (Of a carved statue: “I used to call that Bali Parton.”) The shop, a chockablock riot of curiosities—wagon-wheel chandelier here, helmeted mannequin head there—was a bit more festive than the “Buffalo” set, and the actors were a bit snazzier than their onstage counterparts. Fishburne (Donny, the junk-shop owner) wore an African-print-inspired combo from Moshood, of Brooklyn (“I modelled for them in the eighties”), with a drawstring waist. Criss (Bobby, Donny’s slow-witted gofer) gestured at his own plaid pants, and said, “I’m also rocking the drawstring.” Rockwell (Teach, their ne’er-do-well friend) looked mischievous—rascally mustache, sweater with “high end” in colorful letters. “It’s just a sweater I got because I’m a Hollywood phony,” he said, smirking. Criss and Fishburne laughed. “I’m a dickhead, and I wore a dickish sweater,” he said. They laughed more.
“American Buffalo,” a blunt, staccato symphony of F-bombs, haplessness, and simmering rage, centers on a scheme to steal a valuable nickel and culminates in mayhem. Pepe, a prolific director of Mamet with the presence of a director of much gentler fare, leafed through a bin of old wrenches. “We’ve been talking about what makes a lot of noise,” he said. “There’s stuff that happens physically—it will all be choreographed, hopefully, so that all is safe.” Fishburne got intrigued by an old brass fire extinguisher; earthenware jugs (“Jugs, baby! Now, that’s country”), one of which he blew into, jug-band style; and an early-twentieth-century toaster, which he picked up and carried around.
“Our shop is not as nice as this,” Rockwell said. “We don’t have a ‘Clash of the Titans’ poster. Boy, I would buy that.” He crossed to a wall of old posters. “Or ‘Carmen Jones,’ ” Fishburne said. “I have the one from ‘Black Orpheus.’ ”
“Dude, that Harry Belafonte–Danny Kaye video you sent me was awesome,” Rockwell said. They fist-bumped. Which video? Criss asked.
“It’s called ‘Mama Look a Boo-Boo,’ ” Fishburne said.
“Belafonte was a real sex symbol,” Rockwell said. A feed bag caught his eye. “ ‘Purina Goat Chow,’ ” he read. “I had that for breakfast.”
In 2020, they had rehearsed for three weeks before everything shut down, then continued for several more weeks via FaceTime. “This is the longest I’ve prepared for any show in my entire life,” Criss said. Pepe said that he hoped it would feel “lived in.” Fishburne said, “I’ve wanted to do this play since I was a kid.” When “Buffalo” first made waves, he added, “I was in the Philippines, doing ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ”—but “the talk of it . . . this play changed shit for the American theatre. Nobody had used language like this before.” Pepe said, “All of a sudden, Mamet’s doing iambic with the stuff of the streets.”
Mamet wrote “American Buffalo” while living in Chicago and hanging around with poker players in a junk shop. “Some of the guys were ex-cons, and in the business of thievery,” Pepe said. “He would hear their stories. The play has this idea of wanting a bigger piece of the pie.”
“ ‘Gatsby’s Tennis Nets,’ ” Fishburne said, reading a tag aloud.
On a counter in front, a wooden box displayed a mysterious object: ivory-like, rounded, and carved with dancing skeletons. The visitors leaned in. “I was cleaning out an apartment, and I said, ‘Oh, nice bowl,’ right?” Lerner said. “Then I turned it over and said, ‘Holy crap.’ ”
“It’s a turtle shell,” Fishburne said.
“It’s the top of somebody’s skull,” Lerner said.
“Holy shit!” Criss said. “That is intense! ”