For the uninitiated American Buffalo isn't a play about a genus of bovine but concerns a copper nickel five-cent piece. At least this is the main premise but dig deeper and the play is about much more than that. David Mamet insists that his characters never mean what they say but always mean what they mean. So his 1975 play, whilst centering on a plot to steal the coin of the title, is actually about how men interact with one another and the certain codes of contact between them. It also concerns business, money, friendship and betrayal and, with just three men in the cast, is a true ensemble piece that draws you into their relationship with one another. The script is littered with expletives, a common occurrence in Mamet’s plays, but there is a beauty to the language. The swearing is used when the correct adjective or adverb is unknown to the men. This is not to say they’re totally uneducated, just not terribly literate and why anyone would be offended is beyond me. It is the language of such men and after a while the words become part of the landscape and are forgotten.
The action takes place in Don Dubrow’s (John Goodman) junk shop. beautifully realised by the Set Designer Paul Wills. There is no available space, as objects, ranging from old bicycles to various signs and dilapidated toys, hang and lean everywhere.
Don has sold a rare coin, the American Buffalo of the title, to a customer for a mere $90 and is determined to do a bit of business by stealing it back and then re-selling it at a much higher price. Having found out where the customer lives, he has instructed his “protégé”, Bob (Tom Sturridge), to keep a watchful eye on the potential crime scene in order to ascertain the best time to strike. The problems arise with the arrival of Walter Cole/’Teach’ (Damian Lewis) who, on discovering the plan, wants to be part of the action instead of Bob. The trouble is, they, plus the unseen Fletcher, are four of life’s losers and whatever they touch turns to dust.
The three actors are exemplary, although John Goodman appears the most at ease and comfortable in his role as Don. Being American must surely help, for whilst the other two actors have mastered the US vernacular, their accents do occasionally sound forced. Damien Lewis, almost unrecognizable in a crumpled rust coloured suit, matching shoes and droopy 70’s moustache, plays the showiest character and expertly manages to portray Teach’s neediness which he tries to hide with ego and bluster. The young Tom Sturridge gives enough twitchy mannerisms and nervousness to show his vulnerability and dependence now on Don instead of drugs, whilst John Goodman is magnificent. Don is not the brightest pebble on the beach and has trouble programming his thought process. Thanks to Goodman’s expressive face we’re always aware of this and his eventual realization that he is betraying Bob. His guilt is as palpable as his compassion at the end of the play.
These men are life’s losers but they do have feeling. The ending is unbelievably poignant and even the self-centered and self-pitying Teach portrays a certain degree of self-awareness.
With tight direction from Daniel Evans and star billing all round, this production has no disappointments.