Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: American Buffalo

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: American Buffalo

Article excerpt

American Buffalo

Wyndham's, until 27 June


Olivier, in rep until 30 August

David Mamet is Pinter without the Pinteresque indulgences, the absurdities and obscurities, the pauses, the Number 38 bus routes. American Buffalo , from the 1970s, is one of Mamet's early triumphs. Don is a junkshop owner who believes a customer cheated him over a rare nickel so he gets his young pal Bob to steal it back. An older friend, Teach, persuades Don to ditch Bob and let him commit the burglary. That's it. That's all that happens in this narrow, gripping thriller, which takes the brutal male culture of the Wild West and imports it to the Chicago slums where three lonely outcasts fight desperately for scraps of cash and friendship. On paper it all sounds grey, miserable and petty. On stage it's magnificent, multicoloured, vast and tragic. And often hilarious. Quite how Mamet makes us sympathise with these low-IQ deadbeats is hard to fathom. Clearly these are solitary, womanless men, who create a ramshackle ersatz family from their companionships and rivalries. Damian Lewis plays Teach as a cocky, brittle but likeable thicko in a natty maroon suit and stacked heels. Beneath the thuggish rawness he brings out the comedy without quite sending the character up (but I bet he'll succumb to temptation as the run continues). John Goodman's muted, motherly Don reaches for the psychological core of the character and never goes for the easy laughs. Two great performances. But they're nearly edged out by the set whose heaped bric-à-brac sprawls across the stage and climbs up the walls as well. Overpondered, I thought to myself. And sure enough the designer Paul Wills muses at length on his inspiration in the programme notes. 'It's nestled within a black void. So the men in this play are located within a cave, on an island, in the middle of nowhere.' Mate? It's a shop.

Bit of a problem at the South Bank. New boss Rufus Norris seems perturbed by the accusation once levelled at Sir Nicholas Hytner that he hadn't directed a play by a woman during his tenure. Sir Rufus (as he soon will be) opens his account with two plays by women. A shame both are rubbish. The Lyttelton currently hosts a wordy Civil War drama by Caryl Churchill which is like being trapped in a lighthouse with an autistic lexicographer. Sir Rufus has chosen the Olivier for a showy reworking of the morality play Everyman by Carol Ann Duffy. …

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