AMERICAN BUFFALO Wyndhams, WC2

MEN UP A DEAD END…
The marvellous junk-shop set by Paul Wills comes into its own most gratifyingly when Damian Lewis finally loses control and trashes it. For most of the play it simply evokes the rubbishy oppression of heavyset, patient Don Dubrow’s “Resale Shop”, up some mean street in 1975 where gambling men and smalltime crooks gather for half-baked plots and guarded man-banter. John Goodman, NYC stage and screen veteran, is Don: longsuffering, paternal, the most potentially sane of the three, doing up his saggy cardigan on the wrong buttons at moments of stress but finally, both literally and figuratively, getting it right.
Tom Sturridge is Bob, a protegé of vague function, a shaven-headed starveling teenager with a menacing naîveté and dangerous pathos, looking to Don as probably the nearest thing to a father, though resisting offers of breakfast. Last to arrive onstage, to a little frisson of here-comes-our-star, is Teach: Damian Lewis, back on the London stage after a decade . Not the Homeland Damian, and certainly not Henry VIII: lanky and manic here in a plum-coloured suit, with drooping ginger moustache and sideburns and a permanent state of twitchy offendedness (at first by the unseen Ruth and Gracie, who seem in some mumbled way to have disrespected him).

There’s an exiguous plot in which the elder two plan to steal back a rare coin – the American Buffalo – from a buyer who may have bought it too cheap; yet the real action, as usual in David Mamet’s furious dialogue, is beneath the surface. They plan and spar and disagree, and Teach vents indignantly bravura, wordily eloquent self-justifying rants like a grown-up version of Just William. The most profound of his sayings is probably “Do not fuck with me, I am not other people”. Or maybe “According to me is what it is when it is me who is speaking”. The most alarming moment in the play is not his brief violence with a sink-plunger, but a fearsome five minutes when he waves a gun around, and you’re far from certain he has the wit to put the safety-catch on.

There is the deliberately slight coin plot. But if you just watch them – and these are stellar performances – and tune to the subtext, what they are really saying translates variously as “Do you trust me? More than other guys? Are you my friend? Am I a man? Do you respect me? Will you let me down?” In an extraordinary moment Teach blusters “I am not your wife!”. It’s the least homoerotic of duets, though. Director Daniel Evans writes in the programme that the buffalo motif is important – these animals being aggressive, endangered and prone to leaving their mothers at a young age to roam around with other males. He suggests that the new wave of feminism weighs heavy on them, as well as their failure in the American business dream (as in Miller’s Death of a Salesman). Not sure about the feminism : it can’t all be our fault. Though at times I rather longed to see Ruth and Gracie come in and sort them out.
The first half is slowish, the energy rising after the interval; re the play’s fault than the players’ or directors, and probably an American audience would tune in sooner than me. But in the end, though I am not as a rule a fanatically keen Mamettian , the pathos and truth of these lost boys’ plight became moving, and memorable.

box office 0844 482 5120   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to 27 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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