The collective echoes of King Charles III and A View from the Bridge still reverberate strongly around the walls of Wyndham’s Theatre: American Buffalo certainly has a big stage to fill. Yet this buffalo is a beast that is undeterred by the tracks of its prestigious predecessors. Daniel Evans’s production more than holds its own; it is immaculately designed, paced and performed.
Don owns a crummy antique-cum-junk store. It has your usual paraphernalia to signify mid 70s downtown Chicago, and even a period Mickey Mouse hangs from the ceiling. Yet, if Bargain Hunt has taught us anything, it is that amongst all the crap is the occasional gem. Don sells a coin for $90; cursing his luck, he believes it could have gone for more. Don tells all to his poker buddy ‘Teach’, who comes up with a plan for a heist upon the home of the guy who bought the coin. Also prowling around is Bob, a young good-fer-nuthin’, a waster, who Don has taken under his wing.
David Mamet’s writing is slick and witty. Yet it also contains a brooding menace and sense of foreboding. It is earthy and intense. It employs a hypnotic rhythm of repetition; statements and questions are heard again and again with no sense of closure (“Get the car, Teach”). Above all, his writing is fundamentally human.
Next, combine a velvety text with a stellar cast. All three are electric: John Goodman radiates a gruff yet loving warmth. As Don he is clearly a decent person, just one that is trapped by circumstance. Damian Lewis is unhinged as Teach; he struts and slithers about the space like some creature possessed. He is at once both a sinister and laughable figure, muddling up his phone numbers yet also quick to draw a weapon. Tom Sturridge is unrecognisable as Bob, meek and vulnerable, yet also displaying a dangerous potential in the way he spits out certain words and tilts his head.
Paul Wills’s set is intricately detailed. Don’s shop pierces out into the auditorium, leaving two dark empty spaces on either side of the stage. It complements Mamet’s words and Evans’s pacey direction perfectly. We are confronted with tunnel vision; our focus is solely on Don and Teach’s plot. At the risk of upsetting ice cream vendors, perhaps American Buffalo could have done without its interval, as the cranked-up tension is perhaps sapped slightly while we are all sipping our house white and milling about in the foyer.
American Buffalo is magnetic. It more than deserved its standing ovation – an ovation that I haven’t seen at the theatre since, well, King Charles III and A View from the Bridge.
American Buffalo is playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 27 June. For tickets and more information, see the Delfont Mackintosh website. Photo by Johan Persson.