Theatre review: American Buffalo at Wyndham’s Theatre

A stellar cast fail to bond in David Mamet’s early work, says Bridget Galton.

David Mamet’s poetic, spare dialogue and obsession with under-pressure masculinity in the capitalist bearpit of the American dream usually makes for arresting theatre.

But Daniel Evans’ revival of this 1975 classic fails to create the subtle chemistry between three star actors who don’t always seem to be on the same page.

You can smell Pinter’s influence on Mamet’s isolated trio of losers jawing on endlessly about the unrealised heist of a valuable ‘American Buffalo’ nickel, their expletive-laden language masking unspoken loneliness and desperation.

In post-Watergate America, with a thieving President, and burgeoning women’s movement embodied by the never-seen but viciously maligned Ruthie, John Goodman’s hangdog junkshop owner Don, and Damian Lewis’ garrulous drifter Teach represent an underclass of dinosaurs hoping to make a fast buck from a criminal bit of ‘business’.

Making his London stage debut, screen star Goodman’s understated, slow-moving Don is a decent man who visibly struggles with his betrayal of young protégée Bob when Teach verbally muscles him out of the burglary to better split the profits.

But Tom Sturridge’s over-twitchy skinny junkie is more whiny than needy, and the pathos and tenderness of his bond with Don only surfaces in the play’s final moments, dissipating Mamet’s message about self-interest versus trust and loyalty.

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Strutting marvellously in a cheap Burgundy suit and horseshoe ‘tache, Lewis wrings maximum humour from Teach’s delusional bluster, while allowing us to see the vulnerability and emptiness that drives his violent outburst.

But the requisite menacing atmosphere of mutual suspicion never really builds, and their mouthing off grows tedious enough to draw your eye to Paul Wills’ meticulously detailed junk shop set; the living embodiment of the discarded material goods that drive America’s vacuous consumerism.

Rating: 3/5 stars