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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
AMERICAN BUFFALO
at Wyndham's Theatre

RARE COINS
By JOHN NATHAN

  John Goodman, Tom Sturridge and Damian Lewis/ Ph: Johan Persson

In London it was only a few months ago that we were watching Speed the Plow, a play by David Mamet in which a man called Fox desperately attempts to stop a life-changing opportunity slipping through his fingers by persuading another man, called Gould, to change his mind. They are Hollywood executives and a world away from the down-at-heel chancers in Mamet's breakthrough play of 1975, written over a decade earlier and now also revived in London. Yet these plays have much in common.

This latest production is as much about the starry cast as the author. Homeland's Damian Lewis plays hustler Teach opposite John Goodman's junk shop owner Don. Yet followers of Mamet will be struck at how that scene with the film producers mirrors a moment with these small-time crooks, specifically when Teach implores Don to let him in on the heist that Don plans to carry out with his simple-minded gopher Bob, played by Tom Sturridge. And just as striking is how much Fox (from Plow) and Teach (from Buffalo) have in common. What links them is not the money they stand to make but the chance, feverishly seized upon, to stop feeling like a loser. It is a condition Mamet also explored in Glengarry Glen Ross

But back to Buffalo. Don's intended crime is to burgle the home of a local coin collector who bought a rare American Buffalo nickel in his shop, probably for much less than it is worth. But the play is less about the actual heist than the men, their codes of honour, and the laws and lessons of life by which they live. What emerges through the bravado is not toughness but vulnerability. And although Daniel Evans' production may be off the pace when it comes to the percussive rhythms of Mamet's dialogue, it allows for a sense of the author's compassionate heart - before it hardened.

Everything takes place in Don's shop, which designer Paul Wills bedecks from floor to ceiling with objects that must have previously been thrown onto the scrapheap, much like the three men in Mamet's play. Here, Don and Teach each attempt to trump the other with bon mots of streetwise wisdom. They present them like the hands in the poker game they played the night before. Both of them lost.

Lewis' Teach – his drop-handlebar moustache, open-necked shirt and flared trousers the only signal that the play is set in the mid-70s – is a portrait of coiled anger and indignation. Everyone here wants status, but it is Teach who takes every slight to heart. Yesterday's encounter with disrespect is still with him: “The only way to teach these people a lesson is to kill them.” He is constantly shifting, and the neck stretches and sleeve adjustments suggest a man permanently on the lookout for a scam or trouble. 

Goodman's avuncular Don is no less needful of reasons to keep – or reclaim – self-respect. A Coen brothers favourite, he showed signs of nerves on his West End debut, but he finds his comic timing in Don's panic, which rises as the heist draws near. And caught between the two is Sturridge's shaven-headed helper whose need for companionship is as great as it is for drugs to pump into his arms. This is manhood at its most pitiful. It's a mark of this fine cast's performances that at the beginning of the play you would cross the street to avoid these lowlifes, and by the end you'd be more likely to give them a comforting hug. 

 


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