There’s precious little edge, fear or pathos to the new Young Vic production of “American Buffalo,” but my, is there a lot of debris. Joanna Parker’s set for David Mamet’s 1975 play presents a junk shop whose merchandise and discards scale the height of the theater. And yet there’s something too perfect and manicured — too sculpted, really — about this image, which, after all, speaks metaphorically to the dashed, junked hopes of the play’s three characters. “American Buffalo” is a play about mess — about wreckage, both emotional and physical — and the set offers an initial clue that Lindsay Posner’s staging as a whole will be too reined-in.
This play is among the more frequently produced American works in London, and one can see why inasmuch as it lets three keen British actors strut their lowlife American stuff. You don’t have to be English, either, to be struck by the enduring power of Mamet’s portrait of friendship under stress as it is further compromised by a capitalist ethos summed up in Donny’s first-act summation, “fuckin’ business.” (The weather no doubt touches a local chord, too, in a play in which the prospect of rain prompts one of many comic riffs.)
But the play needs more than a fearless embrace of expletives if its ostensibly simple story of a heist gone awry is to widen in meaning. At its core, “American Buffalo” offers a paradigm of the same blueprint for survival upon which Mamet has been elaborating ever since: Play by your wits and you win, and what difference about the system? At heart, as the play maintains, “we all live like the cavemen.”
Such an assertion only exposes the essential politeness of the acting here, even when the rampaging emotions onstage might suggest something else. (A total red herring is the incidental Colin Towns music, whose bluesy affect couldn’t be less apt.) Nicholas Woodeson is a wonderful actor, but he’s too avuncular and benign a presence as Donny, the shop owner whose “cave,” as it were, exists to be destroyed. As its destroyer, Teach (the part played previously by Robert Duvall and Al Pacino), Douglas Henshall gives a demonstration of wiry, wild-eyed theatrics (he’s Eric Stoltz in psycho mode) that, in the end, proves more exhausting than enlightening.
As the young addict Bobby, a whiny Neil Stuke could use some of the peppery bravura he brought last year to “Mojo.” These guys have noise, but what they don’t possess is funk. They’re three woodpeckers hammering away at language but have yet to get inside the words.