Watching a David Mamet play often feels like sitting in front of a machine gun that is firing bullets in the form razor-sharp lines directly at you; some of them pass overhead, many tickle the ribs, others inflict pain, but rarely do any go near the heart. This 1977 play is set in a second-hand junk shop, realised perfectly in Paul Wills’ cramped and cluttered design. It is run by Don (John Goodman), who, along with “Teach” (Damien Lewis) and Bob (Tom Sturridge), lives his life on the edges of petty criminality; like the contents of the shop, all three have been cast aside by the American Dream. The plot centres around the retrieval of a rare coin (the Buffalo of the title) that Don has been conned into parting with. Daniel Evans’ production captures the tone and rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue to perfection, quite rightly putting the emphasis on the performances. And what performances! Goodman, an iconic figure in film and television, is able to make it all look effortless; the part fits him like a glove and his inimitable presence fills the theatre. Lewis, taking the role last played in the West End by Al Pacino, appears with bushy sideburns and moustache, dressed in a plum-coloured 1970’s suit, complete with flares; “Teach” is a chancer and a bluffer, but Lewis reveals the inadequacy that lies behind the swagger. Sturridge makes the young junkie Bob a memorably pathetic creature, gaunt, pale and with his head shaved, he literally grovels around as he tries to finance his next fix. It is easy to level the charges that Mamet’s writing is cold and clinical, too caught up in its own smartness, but difficult to make them stick when the writing provides the foundation for three such magnificent performances. Yet still there is a sense that the play never quite goes where we want it to take us, walking a path towards greatness, but stopping frustratingly short of the threshold. As the lights dim at the very end, Evans adds a moment of real warmth and the fact that this feels as surprising as the denouement at the end of a very good thriller gives a clue as to what has been missing from the preceding two hours. This is an impeccable production, but it leaves a sense of regret for those of us who find it hard to connect more fully with the play itself and its writer.
Performance date: 29 April 2015