American Buffalo

Theatre, West End
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Damian Lewis and John Goodman head up this starry West End of David Mamet's classic play about small time crooks.

It would be mean, cheap and generally a bit dickish to say that Damian Lewis’s big post-‘Homeland’, post-‘Wolf Hall’ return to the London stage is overshadowed by some comedy facial hair. Nonetheless: if you think the above photo of his moustache is a bit on the distracting side then seriously, you should see the thing live.

David Mamet’s classic 1975 play ‘American Buffalo’ is a three hander, and in Daniel Evans’s enjoyable but busy production, Lewis, rising Brit talent Tom Sturridge, and old American hand John Goodman each sort of do their own thing to entertaining if not entirely cohesive effect.

Paul Wills’s impressively overstuffed set is a Chicago junkshop belonging to Goodman’s Don. Essentially a smalltime crook, he has worked himself into a grump because he sold a rare American Buffalo nickel to a haughty stranger, and has now concluded that it was worth a lot more than the $90 he flogged it for. His solution is to rob the man’s house to get the coin back, and he has taken the rather unwise decision of enlisting Sturridge’s fragile young junkie Bob to help him. But his preening, neurotic hustler friend Teach (Lewis) has got wind: he wants in, and Bob out.

What differentiates ‘American Buffalo’ from much of Mamet’s oeuvre is that for all the dark undercurrents, it feels like a genuine celebration of these men’s friendship. Evans’s production mutes the gloom, and at the night’s best and funniest, it has the absurdist pop and zing of a vintage episode of ‘Seinfeld’, Lewis a highly-strung George, Goodman the avuncular Jerry as they whine and bicker over the mundane minutiae of casing a joint.

The trouble, I found, was that while all three men are individually excellent, they don’t gel enough to really excavate their characters’ hidden depths. And when I say ‘they’: Goodman and Sturridge do click as a deeply dysfunctional but not unloving surrogate father and son. It’s Lewis and his bloody moustache that causes the problems. With his facial topiary, immaculately hideous flared maroon suit, ‘Saturday Night Fever’-ish strut and extravagant South Side drawl, Lewis is a vision to behold, and relentlessly fascinating. But he almost seems like an alien beamed into this junkshop: maybe ‘70s Chicago was full of these characters, but I just found it a chore believing in the trio’s friendship, which is a problem when that’s what the play is about. It could and should go deeper, but if you booked for the cast not the play, you won’t go home disappointed. 

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