American Buffalo Shows Devaluing Of Human Currency
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
The work that made David Mamet a big-hitter on the American stage in 1975, American Buffalo is a powerhouse of a play that demands some hefty performances. And the starry cast of Damian Lewis (Homeland), John Goodman (Coen brothers’ movies) and Tom Sturridge (whose film Far from the Madding Crowd opens this week) deliver the goods, in an intense three-hander that explores the competitive nature of male relationships as well as exposing the underbelly of the American Dream.
The plot hinges on the half-cocked scheme of a trio of petty crooks to carry out a robbery. Don, the owner of a down-at-heel resale (or junk) shop, now believes that the buffalo nickel that he has sold to a customer is actually worth a lot more than he got for it, so he plans to steal the customer’s coin collection from his home with the help of his young, druggie protégé Bob. But Don is persuaded by blustering poker pal Teach that Bob would mess it up and that he should do the job instead. Not surprisingly, things do not go according to plan.
In his trademark muscular, expletive-filled dialogue — at once naturalistic and stylised, and often very funny — Mamet brilliantly portrays a sleazy underworld whose inarticulate denizens use speech as much to conceal their true motives and feelings as to express them, so that we have to guess the deeper meaning behind the banalities. The tension and rivalry between them co-exist uneasily with a need for friendship and trust, as the dynamics of the group shift constantly. Greed for money leads them to devalue their human bonds.
Paul Wills’s impressively seedy set, with assorted junk suspended from the flies on wires as well as littered all over the stage, is contained within a box-like design emphasising the characters’ isolation. Sheffield Theatres Artistic Director Daniel Evans allows the subtleties of the subtext to surface, while ratcheting up the suspense in the second half.
In the more showily entertaining role of Teach, Lewis looks like a bit-part player in American Hustle, with his long sideburns and straggly moustache, and dressed in an unconvincing con man’s purple suit, pathetically revealing the hollow neediness beneath the swaggering assertiveness. The cardigan-wearing Goodman is a great foil as the credulous, avuncular Don, who is swayed into betraying his paternal relationship with Bob, a shaven-headed, scarred Sturridge who strongly exudes the vacant restlessness of a recovering addict. These no-hopers may all dream of the big time but they are stuck on the scrapheap of society like the urban detritus of the shop.
American Buffalo is on at Wyndham's Theatre, WC2 until 27 June. Tickets are £22.25–-£127.25. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 28 April 2015