Backstage secrets of American Buffalo: ‘We’re acting out hidden desires’
Damian Lewis, John Goodman and Tom Sturridge tell Mick Brown why they’ll be grappling with ‘primal issues of manhood’ in a new revival of the David Mamet classic
By Mick Brown – The Telegraph – 11 April 2015
It is a week into rehearsals for the new production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, and the play’s three actors, John Goodman, Damian Lewis and Tom Sturridge, have been getting to know each other. They have been to lunch. They have been playing poker. (Who won, I ask? “Becca,” says Sturridge ruefully, referring to the production’s youthful assistant stage manager, who has been ruthlessly cleaning them all out.) And, of course, there have been long and earnest discussions about the text.
“There are few things that are more revealing about someone than the way that they talk about a piece of literature or a play,” Sturridge says. “You very quickly come to have a much deeper understanding of someone than you would if you just mingled together in a pub saying, ‘All right, how are you?’ Very quickly we were talking in an intimate way about how people feel.”
So how is it all going? They exchange looks and laugh. Ah, too soon to tell, then…
The three men are gathered around a table in a north London rehearsal room. A stolid, melancholic figure dressed in jeans and a sports shirt, Goodman – who is best known for his roles in Coen brothers films including The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis – arrived in London only a couple of days before rehearsals began. This is the first time he has been on stage in five years, and he confesses to feeling both ring rusty and “absolutely brain-dead”. Sturridge, whose career so far has been split between film and theatre, and who in 2013 was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in the Broadway play Orphans, sits pensively, a beanie hat pulled down low over his ears. Lewis is the most extrovert and voluble, his charismatic smile is familiar as that ofNicholas Brody in the long-running television series Homeland and, more recently, Henry VIII in the BBC’s Wolf Hall.
David Mamet was 29 when he wrote American Buffalo. First performed in 1977, it was his second full-length play, and the one that made his name as a playwright, mapping out his territory of macho camaraderie and competitiveness. It is rendered in the fractured, tough-talking vernacular that has become known as “Mametspeak”: a jarring kaleidoscope of half-thoughts, interruptions and obscenities, in which the word “f—” is frequently deployed as verb, noun, adjective or exclamation mark.
American Buffalo tells the story of three small-time hustlers who gather in a junk shop owned by one of them, Donny (played by Goodman), to plot a heist of rare coins from a local collector. (The American Buffalo of the title is a rare Indian Head nickel.) Bobby (Sturridge) is a troubled young man whom Donny has taken on as a gopher, and whom he plans to enlist as his partner in the robbery. This scheme is disrupted by the arrival of Teach (Lewis), a friend of Donny’s, who sets about persuading him that Bobby is too raw and inexperienced for the job and that he should be doing it instead.
The entire play takes place in the confines of Donny’s junk shop, a location that comes increasingly to resemble a pressure cooker, as the characters verbally spar and joust with each other, all eyes fixed firmly on the main chance.
It is a play about friendship and business, loyalty and betrayal, but most of all it is about the tragedy that underlies the American dream – the idea, as Mamet has put it, of “strive and succeed. Instead of rising with the masses one should rise from the masses. Your extremity is my opportunity. That’s what forms the basis of our economic life, and this is what forms the rest of our lives.”
Donny, Bob and Teach – all are no-hopers, enslaved to the idea of scrabbling up the greasy ladder of success, whatever the cost.
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