AL PACINO now has his performance down to a science in ''American
Buffalo.'' In the new Broadway revival of David Mamet's play - a recycling
of the deservedly successful Off Broadway revival of 1981 - the actor seems
to have precisely thought out every move and line. A charismatic fellow
under any circumstances, Mr. Pacino may not disappoint his fans with the
energetic, fastidious star turn he is serving up at the Booth. Theatergoers
hoping to see Mr. Mamet's crackling drama, however, will find that Mr.
Pacino's calculated display of technique has doused much of its fire.
That's too bad. ''American Buffalo'' is one of the best American plays of
the last decade. The story of three small-time Chicago hustlers who try and
fail to steal a cache of rare coins, it has little plot and few words (or
sentences) of more than one syllable. But with such terse means, Mr. Mamet
created a combustible and sympathetic portrait of inarticulate American
underclass dreamers - men whose ambitions to make big money through ''free
enterprise'' are as doomed as the buffaloes on the nickels they covet.
''American Buffalo'' is so sturdy it can support radically different
productions. In the 1977 Broadway staging, which starred Robert Duvall, the
director Ulu Grosbard saw Mr. Mamet's setting, a junk shop, as a cage
emblematic of the men's tragic sociological imprisonment: When the robbery
fell apart, Mr. Duvall lashed out so violently that audiences shuddered at
his crazed impotence. In the 1981 Pacino version, the director Arvin Brown
approached ''American Buffalo'' from the reverse angle, seeing the junk shop
as the characters' only real home. His lighter treatment illuminated the
absurd futility of the would-be burglars' grandiose schemes, as well as the
familial fellowship that allows the men to endure their isolated, fringe
existence on capitalism's scrap heap.
By all rights, the production at the Booth should duplicate that one. Mr.
Brown is once again the director (as he has been since this ''Buffalo''
first began at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater). Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's
set, though restructured for a larger proscenium stage, is essentially
unchanged. The supporting actors - J. J. Johnston as Donny, the junk shop
owner, and James Hayden as Bobby, his drugged-out young go- fer - took over
their roles at the tail end of Mr. Pacino's last New York run.
Nor has the production grown sloppy with wear and tear; like the star's
performance, it runs like clockwork. And some of it still delivers. When Mr.
Pacino and Mr. Johnston undertake a ''crash course'' in the value of old
coins or attempt phone espionage to track down their elusive victim, they
are pathetically funny. For all these grifters' hardheaded pontifications
about the American way of business - crime being the only business to which
they can aspire - they remain the gang that can't shoot straight.
Still, the heat and blood are gone. As Mr. Brown demonstrated before,
''American Buffalo'' is as much about friendship as about business. Teach,
the volatile con artist played by Mr. Pacino, is desperate to win his
cronies' approval: He'll do anything to prove himself the smartest, most
manly guy on the block. It's typical of the decline in Mr. Pacino's
once-vital performance that he now usually faces the auditorium rather than
the other actors on stage. That's an odd stance for an insecure man seeking
respect from his cohorts - though not for a star who wants to court an
Teach's paranoia, at least, is still apparent in Mr. Pacino's sunken,
insomniac's eyes and jittery gestures. But while those gestures have been
edited down over two years - the actor no longer twists a rubber band - the
surviving tics have become as codified as those in a Rodney Dangerfield
routine. The rolling of the shoulders, the absent tugging at the belt, the
smoothing of the hair - each arrives at regular intervals, as if recorded on
a film loop.
By throwing such mechanical stylization on top of an already highly stylized
text, Mr. Pacino saps the work's raw power: It's as fatal to ''American
Buffalo'' as it is to a Pinter play when actors annotate rather than inhabit
the characters. Even at the end, the star fails to burst through his
rigorous routine: Teach's explosion of glass- smashing frustration seems too
controlled to justify Mr. Johnston's muscular effort to restrain it.
The star's performance is echoed by Mr. Hayden, who did so well as the
sensitive immigrant in Mr. Brown's ''A View from the Bridge'' last season.
Playing the most lost and feral of Mr. Mamet's men, this young actor
skillfully shows us a drug addict's weaving gait and unfocused expression.
But where is the rest of the character? As with Mr. Pacino, Mr. Hayden's
tightly conceived methodology - perhaps one should say Method - obscures the
wounded man within. Only the rough-hewn Mr. Johnston, who first created the
role of the junk dealer in Chicago in 1975, gives an authentic, unmannered
performance - albeit one lacking both the majestic girth and decay of
Kenneth McMillan ('77) or Clifton James ('81).
Maybe some newcomers can still enjoy the evening as a light roughhouse
comedy (most of the giggles now come on the four-letter expletives) or for
the sight of Mr. Pacino in the flesh. For everyone else, this production is
likely to prove as hollow as its characters' ambitions. Reduced to a star
vehicle in which acting tricks drive out tension and feeling, ''American
Buffalo'' is in every sense all business and no play.