American Buffalo

Starring Al Pacino. Play by David Manet. A long Wharf Theater production directed by Arvin Brown. After almost 15 years in other climes, mostly Hollywood, Al Pacino has chosen the critically lauded "American Buffalo" for his return to the Off-Broadway stage, in a strong new production at the downtown Circle in the Square.

This is a play about language. Though the characters area three small-time crooks planning a petty burglary, the real subject is words -- harsh, abusive, frequently foul words that pour through the theater like a polluted stream, but punctuated with odd moments of gentleness and tenderness. These men live through their language, and it reflects them in all their dingy dignity. As mean as their aspirations are, their achievements are even meaner: All they accomplish is talk, and like characters in Samuel Beckett, if their voices were stopped they would cease to have any meaning at all.

The playwright, David Manet, weaves their chatter into precise counterpoint, Fugue for Three Voices in a Junkshop, it might be called. Though the vulgarities fall well within the limits of realism, given the type of people speaking, it's hard to remember that Mamet has also written such delicate duets as "Reunion" and "Dark Pony." Yet he has the men and their speech under firm control every moment, shifting moods and meanings with a subtlety that's downright remarkable within the bounds of his self-imposed vocabulary.

For all Pacino's gift's he is not the ideal performer for this sort of thing, since his talents are more physical than verbal. He makes the role of a loquacious hood entirely his own, however, by unleashing a score of body mannerisms that parallel and accent the vociferous speeches of his character.

He lacks the electricity, the bite, the raw nerve that Robert Duvall had in the 1977 Broadway production of "American Buffalo." Still, there is an amazingly eccentric vitality to his performance, which must be the twitchiestm of his career. When he strolls across the stage in a goofy cakewalk, hands and shoulders unconsciously dancing to the beat of some weird drummer at the base of his psyche, the sheer originality of his characterization becomes the dominating element of the show.

Clifton James is just right as Donny, the overweight owner of the "resale shop" where the unconsummated skullduggery takes place, and Thomas Waites is adequate as the young Bobby -- though, to make another inevitable comparison with the recent Broadway production, he never finds the disturbed quality that John Savage projected so convincingly. The director, Arvin Brown, moves the action quickly and efficiently through a setting by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, with lighting by Ronald Wallace.

"American Buffalo" remains an involving, unsettling, blackly comic vision that finds redeeming human qualities in the most squalid of circumstances. Its latest incarnation is darkly compel ling, if not commanding.

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