Buffaloes, American or otherwise, live in herds. Leading actors don’t — and it sure shows in this starry revival of “American Buffalo,” David Mamet’s 1975 play about three wasters in a Chicago junk shop. Daniel Evans’ West End staging shows what happens when everyone does their own thing really, really well: The play goes missing, but no one much minds. Mamet might, but audiences turning up to see Damian Lewis, John Goodman and Tom Sturridge giving larger-than-life performances certainly get their money’s worth, even if only as a job lot.
Paul Wills’ design should share some blame. It looks beautiful, with rusting household flotsam heaped ten feet high up the walls, but it’s so crowded with symbolism that its noise drowns out the play. Don’s Resale Shop is at once a prehistoric cave, a fortress and, with its Jesus statuette and accidental stained glass windows, a church of sorts. Globes are dotted here and there, reminders of the world offstage, and a neon green pharmacy sign blinks overhead, screaming “Sanctuary.” This is a room you read, and while you’re doing so, the plot’s busy unfolding elsewhere.
Each character has his own significant spot onstage: a counter of stale cigars for worn-out proprietor Don (Goodman), a stack of childhood toys for his young apprentice Bob (Sturridge) and a sink and shaving mirror for the vain Teach (Lewis). By their seating arrangements, you shall know them, and overhead, a canopy of assorted bicycles and chairs hang down on chains. It’s a symbol of the stark American choice between get moving and sit waiting.
Having accidentally sold a rare nickel for less than it’s worth, Don plots to send Bob off to steal it back, only to be persuaded that Teach is the better man for a bigger job — to nick the nickel along with the rest of the coin collection. Not that they ever get going, of course; even a phone call to check whether their victim’s at home is bungled. It’s hardly the world’s best moneymaking scheme in any case; most coins are worth little more than the silver they’ve been minted from. The same goes for most of Don’s wares.
It’s a foolish scheme, concocted by a scheming fool. Lewis’s Teach is a poser in a purple suit, with seventies sideburns and a handlebar moustache. He’s a one-suit kind of a guy, the sort to stress the importance of dressing the part at all times, strutting but always undermined by his high-pitched horn-voice. (Imagine Beaker from “The Muppets” starring in “American Hustle.”) What’s missing is the coiled intensity of a livewire and without it, there’s no sense of underlying danger. Vanity isn’t pride, but Teach needs such absolute self-belief that no one dare question him.
Goodman’s Don, meanwhile, is a human sigh, a squidgy man in a saggy cardigan. Incapable of taking life by the horns, let alone calling Teach out, he shuffles about his shop with his hands in his pockets waiting for customers to magically materialize. The balance between the two of them is right, but it’s at the inert end of the spectrum.
It’s left to Sturridge to provide the spark. As Bob, he’s unhinged and unpredictable, every bit the ex-junkie. Don treats him with real tenderness, though more paternalistic than closeted. Bob’s outwardly meek, but, shaven-headed with a fresh scab beneath his right eye, there’s something scrappy about him too. He’s a trier, at least, always willing to get a round of coffee or run an errand, but a long way from going it alone. Sturridge, somehow, makes him seem like a fledgling bird, featherless and craning upwards to be fed. It’s an alarming image, distorted and damaged. With the right leg up, he might make a mover, and that’s the tragedy. For much of the second half, he lies bleeding over a child’s tricycle. (That’s a symbol, ICYMI.)
Individually, each of these characters is an engrossing portrait, but they don’t slot together. Not only that, they’re played in entirely differently styles. It’s oddly like watching three separate eras of performance: Goodman’s painted expressions, Lewis entirely on the beat and Sturridge entirely off it. You wonder what happened to the director, Evans, then remember that he’s an actor too. That’s what this smacks of: great acting running wild, trampling over the plains of America. Like buffalo — just not in a herd.