To see this early Mamet classic now, forty years on, is a little like picking up the coin of its title and re-inspecting it in the light of a new world; or indeed The New World, since this three-handed study of men and money is all about the nightmare underside of the old American dream.
When it was first produced in 1975, in a Chicago teeming with apparently limitless possibilities in commerce, society and the arts, the Watergate scandal was still fresh in the national consciousness. In the intervening years, the break-in and cover-up which finished Nixon and rocked the whole institution of the presidency has hardened from contemporary shock to historical watershed.
But there it still is, essentially a big, bungled burglary by a bunch of lying amateurs, casting a great shadow across the lesser but rather similar endeavours of Mamet’s desperate trio. They are Don, owner of a ramshackle corner store packed from floor to ceiling with all manner of detritus; his troubled young sidekick Bob, and Walter or “Teach,” a feckless friend from the haunts of gambling.
Don has sold a Buffalo nickel to a customer for ninety dollars, but now reckons it was worth a lot more. He, with Don, plans to burgle the customer’s house and reclaim the coin while the man is away on holiday. But then Teach turns up at the store and persuades Don that he, rather than the callow young Bob, should be entrusted with the job. What follows is a pitch-black farce of suspicion, betrayal and tragic violence.
None of the characters needs to mention the fact that they are operating in a country where everyone up to and including the president is at it in some way, screwing up, panicking, authorising crazed schemes of redemption, then tangling themselves lethally in the web of after-sales deceit. The designer Paul Wills’ astoundingly packed set can be seen as a kind of alternative White House, a whimsical and paranoid boss at its heart, the walls a seething monument to a smashed-up and self-hating America in the end-days of a catastrophic foreign war; ripped flags, tattered Disney merchandise, Ball Game tat, bits of cannibalised bike tumbling from the ceiling.
Into this negative image of the US slides Damian Lewis OBE, no less, with the monarchy of Henry VIII from Wolf Hall fresh on his jobs list, to say nothing of Homeland’s Sgt Nicholas Brody or The Forsyte Saga’s Soames. He makes out just fine, which is sooner said than done when you find yourself on the home turf of Golden Globe and Emmy award winner John Goodman as Don. For any English actor (with Tom Sturridge’s Bob there are two here), it’s a bold mission to come trading vowels with a great American movie veteran – and Coen Brothers favourite such as Goodman. Both emerge with credit, whether through aptitude, hard work, Goodman’s benign contagion or a mixture of the three.
This is one of the plays that made Mamet’s name and identified him with a make of tough, tender dialogue that reveals more than its (mostly male) deliverers probably intended. Daniel Evans’ finely paced production catches well this oddly poetic shadowland between word and meaning.
Whether relevance is a blessing or a distraction, it will surely never be absent for long from this study of financial ducking-and-diving and its murderous way with human relationships. Many of the Wyndhams audience weren’t born when Watergate was going on. But they were around a few years ago when Lehmann crashed, and when the hilariously named Madoff made off with everyone’s money.
Review by Alan Franks
David Mamet’s explosive drama examines the fickle nature of honour among thieves. As three small-time crooks plan one big-time heist, a tragedy of errors spins this razor-sharp and darkly funny play into a blistering account of divided loyalties, insatiable greed… and a coveted Buffalo nickel.
Damian Lewis, known internationally for his Emmy® and Golden Globe® Award-winning performance as ‘Nicholas Brody’ in Homeland, returns to the West End stage to star in this major new revival directed by Daniel Evans.
Interview with Damian Lewis, John Goodman, Tom Sturridge and director Daniel Evans
Age Restrictions: Recommended for ages 12+ – Contains very strong language
Show Opened: 16th April 2015
Booking Until: 27th June 2015
Important Info: Please note: Owing to the nature of the production, latecomers for American Buffalo will not be admitted until after the Interval.
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm