Review: American Buffalo

Triumph of the Three Losers


Nothing brings out the Hollywood stars quite like a David Mamet play. It is only a few months since Lindsay Lohan was tempted out of her comfort zone and on to the London stage by Mamet's Speed the Plow. This time, Coen brothers favourite John Goodman and Homeland's Damian Lewis take on Mamet's seminal play of 1975.

This is brimful of the punchy, sweary and manly exchanges that would come to characterise the author's later work. And, much like the plays that followed, Mamet uses male aggression to reveal the vulnerability of men. Here, Daniel Evans's fine production unexpectedly also reveals an authorial heart before it hardened. Pity is not a quality you associate with Mamet. But you feel it deeply for these small-time crooks.

The setting for this dark comedy is a junk shop owned by Goodman's Don whose simple-minded helper Bob (Tom Sturridge) has been co-opted into a plan to burgle the home of a local coin collector. When Lewis's snappily dressed hustler Teach gets wind of the caper, he wants in. In or out, the Three Stooges would have a better chance of success than these three.

In large part, the play is a negotiation by Don to convince Teach that he, not Bob, is the right man for the job. But it is the manner of the negotiation that grips. The currency of their conversation is the wisdom each has gained at the school of hard knocks. Life lessons are laid out like the hands in last night's poker game. Both of them lost.

Over a decade later, Mamet would populate his play Speed the Plow with Hollywood execs. Though more successful than Don and Bob, the desperation to stop the cycle of being one of life's losers is the same, as is the talk of living life by a moral code.

In American Buffalo - the name of a rare coin - the casualty of Don and Bob's desperate attempt to win at something is Sturridge's painfully vulnerable, shaven-headed junky whose need to please is even greater than that to shoot-up.

Lewis transmits the anger of a man aware that life has offered him so little because he has so little to offer, while Goodman's Don is nothing like the man he describes himself as - clever, ruthless and tough. The sense is that when Mamet wrote the play, he might have thought that this was a good thing.

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