John Goodman is very good. Damian Lewis is very good. Tom Sturridge is very good. Paul Wills’ design is very good. But one, or even four swallows do not a summer make. American Buffalo is a skyful of swallows, but it’s still only April. It is occasionally brilliant and builds to a satisfying pay-off, but Daniel Evans’ production of David Mamet’s 1975 play never quite breaks free from being The Goodman and Lewis and Sturridge Shows, each playing on different channels.
Don (Goodman) owns a junk shop, accidentally sells an old coin for less than it’s worth and tries to get it back. Rather than working with his loyal but unreliable ward Bob (Sturridge), Teach (Lewis) persuades him that they should work together and steal the coin back.
The junk shop is a stunning set, overshadowed by a canopy of clutter hanging from wires: bikes, chairs, teddy bears. It’s beautifully brash and sits in contrast to the apparent simplicity of the text. Much of the dialogue seems banal, but the actors add plenty of meat and meaning to what they’re saying – albeit in very different ways.
Goodman walks around sort of delicately, like he’s proud of his little shop. Lewis struts in and frequently poses centre stage. They possess their characters completely, occupying points along a spectrum of acuity: Lewis’ poseur movements and his words are stamped with precision as though he were a gameshow host. Goodman is looser and lumbering, but aware of himself as he pulls at the insides of his cardigan pockets or repeatedly hovers over a chair without committing to sitting down. It’s just on the conscious side of absent mindedness.
Sturridge, though, seems to have little control over his body or his constantly cracking voice. Vowels are drawn-out or half-formed and, at one moment when he collapses to the floor and is hoisted by Goodman, it genuinely looks as if he might not have the bodily strength to stay upright. He’s eager to please and easy to hurt, childlike and waifish. It’s possible that Bob is extremely high. His whole body is pale and there’s a lesion on his face that could be a disease or maybe a wound from some mishap; either way, it’s no sign of a happy life. Although he comes across as a space cadet, when he wants something he can switch on a connection to the world.
Catgut tension is pulled tighter and tighter: these characters get riled up by tiny things like a remark about toast. But when it comes to the big things they remain restrained – Lewis particularly, repeating the phrase “I’m not saying anything here, but…” and then proceeding to trash someone’s character.
Their world, driven by value and devoid of values (American Dream, Death of a Salesman blah blah Watergate) forces friendships to become transactions; they socialise over poker games, but Mamet emphasises that the games are only really about winning or losing money. The three actors inhabit different worlds within the same space and don’t seem to unify, they never pull the production into something whole. But maybe that’s the point: certainly the unwavering self-importance comes across in the many lengthy tirades that Don and Teach take turns to inveigh, set to a soundtrack of ‘yeah’s and ‘no’s by the other that shows they’re not actually listening.
The characters keep asking ‘are you mad at me?’ and, though the answer is always ‘yes’, the response is always ‘no’. They’re all refusing to confront any real emotional centre. Until the end, that is, until each of them finds their own version of being a man. For Lewis it’s testosteronic rage, bursting out with a mighty mini-rant (the junk shop set comes into its own) and the others, Bob and Don, find how to care for each other in a relationship that’s less distant and avuncular, more paternal and pure. They’re men in a world that has told them in no uncertain terms what masculinity is – money, power, authority – and then told them they can’t fucking have it. So, instead, they’re chancers – stealing, doing each other down, refusing to care or to connect – taking these small opportunities to be what they never can