thu 20/06/2024

American Buffalo, Wyndham's Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

American Buffalo, Wyndham's Theatre

American Buffalo, Wyndham's Theatre

Damian Lewis tears up the stage, literally, in Mamet's modern classic

John Goodman, Damian Lewis and Tom Sturridge in 'American Buffalo'Johan Persson

From the great, gasp-inducing rush of colour when the curtain opens on American Buffalo to the embrace that closes it, this revival of David Mamet’s career-making rummage through the junkyard of the American Dream has you in a vice-like grip. It’s been eagerly anticipated, and doesn’t disappoint.

Most great plays have an air of having just been written. American Buffalo is now 40 years old, yet speaks loudly and painfully about the state we’re in today. While a number of our bankers and businessmen are crooks, Mamet’s crooks regard themselves as businessmen. And business, declares junk store owner Don (John Goodman), “is people taking care of themselves”.

Mamet would later expand on the themes of American Buffalo in Glengarry Glen Ross, whose slick salesmen are so much more cynical, and more parasitical than the characters here. The fact is that Don, his pal Teach (Damian Lewis) and young protégé Bob (Tom Sturridge) aren’t much cop at either villainy or business, their failings lending humour and pathos to their attempt at a big score. There’s also suspense and a genuine threat of violence – quite the emotional stew, kept at an intriguing simmer by director Daniel Evans and his cast as they ever so slowly turn up the heat.

Teach is the driver of the play and Lewis milks him for all he’s worth The entire play takes place in Don’s shop, whose bewildering miscellany of tat fills the stage; designer Paul Wills hangs bikes, chairs, a rocking horse and God knows what else from the ceiling, as much material as he has piled chaotically on the ground, the garish disorder an indicator of the lives playing out amongst it. Considering that the shop gets an almighty battering from one of the stars, the care and intricacy of its design is all the more remarkable.

Surprisingly, Don has had a customer, a man who bought a rare coin, the eponymous Buffalo, which Don didn’t even know he had. Somehow affronted by a good sale, the junk man decides to steal back the nickel, along with a whole lot more, and has engaged the dim-witted addict Bob to carry out the burglary on his behalf. But Teach, moping about the shop on a mission to whinge, gets wind of the plan; he wants in, and he wants Bob out.

What ensues is a great deal of talk and planning about something that may never happen (not unlike the first act of Glengarry), driven by Teach’s verbose attempts to secure an advantage. He and Don agree that friendship and business cannot co-exist, but still they enter into a shady partnership, their own friendship becoming threatened by greed and distrust.

One of the great American character actors, Goodman makes his West End debut and seems completely at home. There’s nothing showy about the performance. Indeed, as Don is torn between loyalty to Bob and the logic of Teach’s offer, this large, imposing actor provides the ballast of the drama.

In contrast, Teach is the driver of the play and Lewis (pictured right) milks him for all he’s worth. This man is a dandy of Chicago hustlers, resplendent in a mauve suit with tight-fitting trousers, a ginger Zapata and sideburns, and a feather cut oddly reminiscent of Pacino’s in Scarface. He fills the space not just sartorially but with Mamet’s usual arsenal of venal vernacular.

Lewis has all his balls in the air at once – he’s funny, self-pitying, self-aggrandising, scheming, an encyclopaedia of bullshit, all underpinned by a whiff of desperation. And the performance is elevated beyond mere entertainment in the final stretch, with an outpouring of rage and despair that reminds us that for these three men the “dream” has been reduced to a much more basic desire, to survive, with a modicum of respect.

Funnily enough, Sturridge gets to play the peacock later this week, on screen as Sergeant Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd. For now, he’s more subdued. Bob is a gopher, a patsy, but not an entirely known quantity; with his shaven head and drug-addled demeanour, Sturridge gives him an edginess that makes it just possible that Bob could know more of the world (or at least what’s going on across the street) than he’s letting on.

The actors deliver a mountain of machine-gun dialogue with gusto and impeccable timing. One could simply sit back and enjoy Mamet’s language and his characters’ fixations on minutiae – a broken watch, a costly card game, the slight taken over a sandwich. But, as ever, it all informs the emotional fault lines and the attempt to mark out codes of behaviour between men, honour amongst thieves.

While a number of our bankers and businessmen are crooks, Mamet’s crooks regard themselves as businessmen


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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