I was beyond excited when it was announced John Goodman would be appearing in American Buffalo at Wyndham’s Theatre. He has long been one of my favourite actors (going back to Roseanne, his appearances in numerous Coen Brothers movies, and yes, even King Ralph). The fact that Damian Lewis (or Dame Ian Lewis as I like to call him) was also in the cast was the icing on an already substantial cake.
As usual, when going to see a production featuring someone I have a fondness for, I was a bit apprehensive – would the play and performances meet my expectations? Fortunately, in this instance: yes. The play was blackly funny and downbeat, but also had some surprisingly tender moments which offset the callous world inhabited by David Mamet’s small time grifters.
Set in Chicago in the mid ‘70s, the story takes place over the course of a day and night in a junk shop owned by John Goodman’s character, Don. Suspecting he’s been stiffed by a customer on the sale of a rare coin (the American Buffalo of the title), Don formulates a half-baked plan to steal it back with the help, or rather hindrance, of his friends Teach and Bob.
Damian Lewis played twitchy hustler, Teach, with charismatic swagger and a spectacular moustache and sideburns combo. Constantly on the move, Lewis had the showiest role, running verbal rings around the more self-contained Don and slow-witted Bob, the junk shop’s gofer and a recovering drug addict.
However, Teach’s aggressive energy is only a veneer and as their ill-conceived plan crumbles along with any dreams of success, it is Teach who loses it, trashing the junk shop in a rage. This sudden physical outburst was a jolt after the verbal exchanges dominating the rest of the play, making a powerful impact.
One glimmer of human warmth was the relationship between Don and Bob. Nothing was overtly said but it was implied that Don deeply cares for Bob. Goodman’s subtlety in conveying Don’s love for Bob provided a sensitive counterpoint to Lewis’s swagger.
Pale and shaven-headed, Tom Sturridge played Bob with huge vulnerability, hunched over and almost boneless. There was a moment near the end where Don assures Bob that he “did good” and like a white grub unfurling, Sturridge made it appear as though Bob was strengthening at last, before faltering and folding back in on himself. It was heartbreaking to watch.
Paul Wills’s detailed set was a visual treat, the cluttered confines of the junk shop emphasising the characters’ limited horizons. Chairs, bicycles and bric-a-brac hung down on chains from the rafters, adding to the oppressive feel as the tension mounted and expletives flew around below.
Director Daniel Evans built up the pressure with Mamet’s trademark themes of masculinities, male relationships, loyalty, money and the hollowness of the American Dream being explored as much by what the characters didn’t say as what they did.
As you would expect from Mamet, the testosterone levels were high – the only females referred to were Ruthie and Grace, a lesbian couple, who sounded far more savvy and streetwise than Teach, Don and Bob. It made me wish Mamet had written a sequel about Ruthie and Grace – I’d definitely go and see that!