Wednesday, June 10, 2015

AMERICAN BUFFALO at Wyndhams Theatre: In for a penny...

I have now seen David Mamet's AMERICAN BUFFALO in four different productions.  I wouldn't call it one of my favourite plays but as it features a flashy, kinetic star role it is one that usually attracts interesting actors, and that usually attracts me!

Well I have been drawn back into the seedy, conniving, occasionally touching, world of small time crooks in 1970s Chicago with this new production at the Wyndhams Theatre, directed by Daniel Evans.

This time around, the lead role of the gambling chancer 'Teach' is played by Damian Lewis in a return to the West End after six years away in which he became an award-winning tv star in the US with the gripping thriller series HOMELAND.  Joining him is the one and only John Goodman as Don, owner of a rundown junk shop where the action is centred and coming actor Tom Sturridge as the flaky junkie Bobby.

Lewis joins my gallery of former 'Teach's: Al Pacino at the Duke of Yorks in 1984, Douglas Henshall at the Young Vic in 1997 and William H. Macy at the Donmar in 2000.  So now it's a straight split between UK and US actors and I must admit (unsurprisingly) that the US actors were the most convincing.  Pacino was mesmerising, a human dynamo of itchy anger while Macy was a more rundown and venal 'Teach'.

This production marks the 40th anniversary of the play's first performance and Mamet's idiosyncratic, pungent, salty dialogue, heavily indebted to Pinter, is still a delight to hear.  The plot seems simple enough: Don (Goodman) owns an untidy junk shop where he occasionally also holds after-hours poker-nights.  He keeps a warily protective eye on recovering heroin addict Bobby (Sturridge) who is his unpaid go-fer. 

Don is rattled by the sale of an old nickel (showing the titular American Buffalo) to a coin collector for $90 and, feeling it is obviously worth more, he plans a robbery of the collector's flat to get it back.  The unpredictable chancer 'Teach' appears and shoehorns himself into the burglary plot, persuading Don that Bobby would probably mess up.  When another friend who is recruited for the burglary fails to show up at the appointed time, paranoia and anger lead to an explosion of recriminations and violence.

Snaking around and through the plot however is an exploration of the power struggle between men, the constant shifts in power among so-called friends.  While Daniel Evans certainly keeps the verbal volleys firing across Paul Wills' over-the-top cluttered set, the pace sometimes dipped during it's quieter moments which loosened the tension within the play.  What he certainly did highlight was the underlying care that Don feels for the damaged Bob which Goodman played with gruff tenderness.

John Goodman gave the performance of the evening, catching the rhythm of the prose perfectly, every pause, shrugged response and sudden burst of anger hit the money every time, his stillness being a bedrock of the production.  Whirling around Goodman was Damain Lewis who, while getting the slick self-centredness of 'Teach' well, came across more more like a fly than a mosquito.  It was a very showy star performance which is what most of the audience were happy to see but after one has seen Pacino and Macy really shake the life out of the part, it felt a bit thin.  It was almost like he was letting his 70s pornstar facial hair and brown two-piece do all the work, which was a pity as he is a very likable actor.

I liked Tom Sturridge's Bob as well, you could almost feel the character's itchy clamminess.  Bobby has a brief moment when he senses he is in control of the powerplay and Sturridge played his preening importance well just before being literally felled by a vindictive 'Teach'.

As I said, Paul Wills' junkshop set was certainly eye-catching if over-powering and as with nearly every play in the West End, the lighting was up to Mark Henderson's usual standard.  If you have not seen AMERICAN BUFFALO before I would recommend grabbing one of the few seats left before the end of it's limited run at the end of this month.


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