Mamet, the Right Way

David Mamet writes plays and movies and TV shows about tough guys. When he came out as a conservative, he did so in the lefty Village Voice, which was a tough-guy thing to do. And he leaves no doubt that he likes his acting the way he likes his haircuts: straight up, no BS. In "True and False," his book about acting, the crew-cutted writer-director gives the impression that we make too much fuss about an essentially straightforward job—like bricklaying, but with a frilly curtain and a follow-spot.

Yet Mamet's writing—and the demands it places on actors who try to perform it—are more complex than this workaday veneer, as the diverging fortunes of two new Broadway revivals of his work make clear. "American Buffalo" is a modern classic about three small-time crooks who bungle a robbery. Though it's blessed with a talented, if improbable, cast—John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment—the show feels sluggish. Or, rather, it feels muffled.

For while Mamet is often viewed as a true-to-life chronicler of crooks and hoods, with their F-bombs galore, his dialogue isn't realistic. Deep down, he's a poet, writing a delicate form of verse with a precise, Runyonesque rhythm. (Witness, for instance, the sputtering, gloriously unprintable tirade that Leguizamo unleashes when he steps onstage—the most profane entrance lines ever heard.) Stage presence and nice diction aren't enough to do Mamet justice. It takes verbal wizardry, which none of these actors—not even Leguizamo, who comes closest but still lacks the requisite crisp delivery—possesses. Unable to make good on Mamet's word-music, the show posted a provisional closing notice two days after opening night.

Vocal limitations also hamper the revival of "Speed-the-Plow," Mamet's comedy about a producer and an office temp trying to persuade a movie executive to make two different films. Though Jeremy Piven (Ari Gold on "Entourage") and Elisabeth Moss (Peggy on "Mad Men") have done plenty of stage work, their performances as the executive and the temp come off like those in "American Buffalo": clear and poised but lacking the lyrical flash that Mamet demands. Why, then, does the show thrive? Listen closely to Raul Esparza. The young star of musical theater all but sings the role of the craven producer, flickering from deadpan comic understatement to high, excited shrieks. He brings to Mametspeak the verbal flair you'd expect from an actor who spent the past two years slaloming through the rhythms of Sondheim and Pinter.

This isn't to say that song-and-dance men alone can be trusted with these roles. But it can't be a coincidence that the only Mamet performances in the same league as Esparza's lately were by actors famous for their skill with heightened language: Liev Schreiber, who paused on the route from Henry V to Macbeth to play a salesman in "Glengarry Glen Ross," and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who brought to the film "Redbelt" the gifts that led London critics to call him an Othello for the ages. With this Shakespearean pedigree in mind, the producers of the next Mamet revival may want to apply a more exacting standard during casting, one offered by another writer-director with strong opinions about the actor's craft: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you," says Hamlet, "trippingly on the tongue."