American Buffalo, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Nickels and crimes
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The Independent Culture

Stuttering like gunfire, stalling when you think it's getting somewhere, and endlessly repetitious in its recycling of profanities, the dialogue of David Mamet's American Buffalo first appears as enigmatic and confusing as the clutter heaped high in Donny Dubrow's junk shop. As the erratic rhythms of Mamet's speech-patterns begin to take jagged shape, however, the skeleton of a structure – scarcely a plot – begins to emerge. Donny believes he's been swindled by a wily collector who has scooped a valuable coin (the "buffalo" of the title refers to the pre-Jefferson nickel which, ironically, in fact depicts a bison). Donny is plotting to recover the coin and steal some more into the bargain. In the chaotic setting-up of this heist, it's clear that no one believes anyone, and everyone finds the truth as difficult to make out as the audience.

Donny, Bobby and Teach are small-time hustlers. Their American dream has turned into a nightmare. Mamet's sharp character- isation and verbal dexterity render these shadowy low-lifes with imagination and vigour. Greg Hersov's taut production captures the nervy claustrophobia, the deep suspicion of betrayal, the storm brewing around these men and their murky, tenuous relationships. Just who is the cheat, the double dealer?

Donny – the hulking, immovable object around which Teach boxes clever and Bobby sidesteps clumsily – is played by Mike McShane, razor-sharp in his portrayal of a man inside whose bluff exterior lurks a loser, endlessly plagued by his own uncertainty. His poker buddy is the volatile and explosive foil to Donny's plodding vacillation: Ben Keaton is hypnotic in conveying Teach's caged energy, his disappointment and failure concealed with brash confidence and staccato expletives. He's out for No 1, still hoping for that one big chance just around the corner.

He's set on getting in on this robbery, even if it means talking up the big man and ruthlessly stepping on the little, Donny's young accomplice and gofer, Bobby. Bobby's persona is the most elusive of the three, yet Paul Popplewell succeeds in conveying a mixture of innocence and cunning, whether he's skulking watchfully or experiencing emotional and physical pain as the screw tightens into a three-way confrontation.

Identities are subverted, subtext conceals meaning and metaphors are complex, but in this inexhaustibly talky play the words take on a life of their own, ricocheting around and around, until, spinning out of control, the tension rises and, ready to snap, you want to scream "Stop!"

It's an intense evening, thanks to three excellent performances, and unexpectedly comic – though why where people keep the combination numbers for their home safes, or the likely value of a buffalo-head nickel or two, should raise a laugh is just another unanswerable question in Mamet's bizarre world.

To 18 May (0161-833 9833)

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