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David Mamet‘s sturdy, hard-wearing American Buffalo endures for many reasons. The dialogue, of course, is terrific and a gift to actors, while its exploration of greed, strained loyalties and busted American dreams is timeless, even with the many references to the recession-riddled period in which it was written. Most of all perhaps, the 1975 play has a sort of crystalline clarity of structure, an austerity despite the junk-shop clutter, that evokes the bleakness of Samuel Beckett.
“I go out there every day,” says the character Teach, gesturing toward the world beyond the store. “There’s nothing out there.” On the surface, the line refers to the amorality of the streets beyond, but it also points to the void beyond the stage set. The play’s world is nothing more or less than this — a foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
Director Daniel Evans‘ impressively cast but slightly bumpy new production of American Buffalo, which opened this week at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London, pushes that Beckettian sense of isolation hard. Perhaps that has something to do with knowing that John Goodman, who plays Don here, won acclaim as Pozzo in a 2009 Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot.
But it also resides in the low-tech intimacy of the show. For all the talk of stuff going on elsewhere — the other characters we never meet; the coffee shop across the street; the coin collector’s apartment round the corner, which the core trio plan on robbing to get back the valuable American buffalo nickel that Don unwittingly sold — it truly feels like there’s nothing out there. There are no sound effects of street life when the shop door opens, and only a light scanning the windows to suggest a passing police car, as if the world beyond barely exists.
“We live like the cavemen,” says Teach (Damian Lewis). Indeed, the way designer Paul Wills dangles a thick, sharp-edged tangle of busted chairs, children’s toys and tools from the ceiling conjures stalactites that may fall at any second to crush the cast.
That sense of the void beyond doubles down the focus on the actors (Tom Sturridge as Bobby completes the cast), which in this case proves to be both a blessing and a problem. Most viewers expect from a Mamet play quick-fire patter delivered at staccato speed. However, at the performance seen for this review, the rhythms seemed to be off for the first half-hour or so, with the pauses so elongated one began to wonder if the actors had forgotten some lines.
Once they warmed up and the pace accelerated, things improved considerably. Goodman especially came into his own, displaying an innate musicality that makes his back and forth with Lewis sing, recalling the wonderful dialogue harmonic exercises he performed with Jeff Bridges and Steve Buscemi in The Big Lebowski. With his beefy presence (less beefy than it used to be), jowly features, and that scratchy growl of a voice, Goodman seems tailor-made for Mamet.
If he’s the double bass in the trio, Lewis’ Teach is the saxophone, trilling off showboat solos. Clad in a Huggy Bear-worthy burgundy suit, all flares and wide lapels, Lewis, always a very physical performer, rooster-struts about the stage, leaning down deep as if to peck pennies off the floor. Finding the frustrated stand-up comedian in the part, with the streak of cruelty that brings with it, he cuts a figure both absurd and palpably dangerous. It’s a shame his performance is sometimes a little too big and broad, wearing away some of the naturalism that’s also required.
Sturridge’s flute-thin Bob is the major weak spot. Playing the one-time junkie character like he’s either still using or permanently brain-damaged, his line readings are monotonously slow, apart from one bit where he shrilly demands that Don looks at “his buffalo,” imbuing the delivery with the erotic energy of a spurned lover. (Oddly, it’s the only moment the closet subtext embedded in the play comes out loud and clear.) Otherwise, with his shaven head and scab on his face that evokes an AIDS-victim’s sarcoma, Sturridge cuts a slow-moving, Gollum-like figure who sucks the energy out of the room. It’s enough to make one sympathize with the otherwise odious Teach’s plans to cut him out of the heist earnings.
All in all, this is a respectable, competent but not outstanding production that will more than adequately slake the thirst of London audiences to see star power on stage. Whether this tale of characters going nowhere fast has the juice to travel is a bit more questionable.
Cast: Damian Lewis, John Goodman, Tom Sturridge
Director: Daniel Evans
Playwright: David Mamet
Set and costume designer: Paul Wills
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Presented by Matthew Byam Sham, Nia Janis, Nick Salmon for Playful Productions, Jeffrey Richard, Jerry Frankel, Will Trice, Steve Traxler, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Georgia Gatti
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