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The Theatreguide.London Review

American Buffalo
Wyndham's Theatre  Spring 2015

David Mamet writes plays about the lies men tell each other and themselves, to convince each other and themselves that they're more than they are.

In Glengarry Glen Ross scummy land salesmen assert that only they are real men, in Speed-the-Plow a Hollywood hack begins to think he has the soul of an artist. And in American Buffalo a trio of small-time crooks pump themselves up for a simple robbery that turns out, both comically and sadly, to be beyond them. 

Junkshop owner Don discovers that a customer has a rare coin collection and decides to steal it with his brain-addled junkie hanger-on Bob. Teach, a hustler friend, worms his way into the project, and from that point nothing goes right because they prove unable to do anything right. 

Sent to check out the target house, Bob wanders away. The mere thought that the coins might be in a safe sends Don and Teach off into an extended argument over where the combination might be hidden, until they've almost talked themselves out of the attempt. Even the simple task of making a phone call proves comically beyond their abilities. 

Indeed, one of Mamet's signature weaknesses, that his plots tend to turn on some incidental comment or slip of the tongue, proves very effective here, as a small admission by one on a point that shouldn't interfere with the plan proves just too much for them to handle. 

The play, like many of Mamet's, is thus a mix of comedy and drama, of the near-slapstick of ineptitude and posturing alongside the awareness that this all really does mean a lot to men who have their whole manhood at stake. 

I suppose I should also warn that, like many of Mamet's, it is sprinkled liberally with the rather limited repertoire of obscenities that are the vocabulary of men on their own. 

But, as in his other plays, Mamet is not just using foul language to shock, but to characterise, as he knows that this sort of obscenity is an assertion of manhood, and that precisely which four-letter word is used at which moment can be significant and illuminating. 

So the task for director Daniel Evans and his cast is to combine comedy and drama without clashes and to create the testosterone-fuelled but horizon-limited world of these little men who have to believe they are more than they are. 

Damian Lewis perfectly captures the absurd and pathetic in Teach, charging him with a never-pausing nervous energy that may be just a cover for insecurity but carries a threat of explosion. 

Mamet-speak is a particular patois the playwright gives many of his characters, a mix of Damon Runyan and Mafia movie formality with casual obscenity and the unfinished sentences of those unused to extended thought, and Lewis catches all its comic surface, darker undertones and unexpected poetry. 

As Bob, Tom Sturridge walks a line between presenting the boy as mentally limited and drug-addled, never quite letting us decide which but making either sympathetic as he adds the touching quality of trying very hard to please the others. 

Curiously John Goodman, the one American in the cast, is least successful either at establishing a character or slipping smoothly into Mamet-speak. 

Don is a bit of an enigma as written he is clearly a figure of some authority and respect in this little world, but one Teach can easily manipulate, and the exact nature of his relationship to Bob is ambiguous. Goodman doesn't resolve any of these contradictions or absorb them into a mystery, but remains a blank we can never really see. 

In its concentrated focus, its three potentially strong roles and is skilled mix of comedy and drama American Buffalo is the quintessential David Mamet play, and even a partly-flawed production like this is very much worth seeing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - American Buffalo  - Wyndham's Theatre 2015  
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