It's a role that has attracted the likes of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and William H Macy. Now, the part of Teach – the most driven of the three small-time hustlers in David Mamet's 1975 play, American Buffalo – has lured Damian Lewis back to the boards, after a six-year break during which he's won fame, the Emmy and the Golden Globe for his performance in TV conspiracy thriller, Homeland.
Daniel Evan's fine production teams him John Goodman (a fellow Golden Globe winner for Roseanne and a regular in the Coen brothers' movies) and with Tom Sturridge (a Tony Award nominee for Orphans and a striking stage presence in plays such as Punk Rock and Wastwater).
Here, for once, the commercial pulling-power of actors with cinema and television clout combines with a genuine depth of theatrical expertise. Paul Wills's cluttered set, with a dense forest of second-hand bicycles hanging from the ceiling, lends a claustrophobic, almost cave-like feel to the Chicago junk store where the drama takes place.
The three no-hope hoodlums are planning the heist of a rare coin collection from an apartment just round the corner. You'd think it was an assault on Fort Knox from the way they talk about it, but the grubby little scheme falls apart through ineptitude and treachery. It's a story of threatened masculinity, competitiveness and the fickle nature of loyalty among thieves.
Mamet mounts a mordant indictment of the American Dream by letting you hear these bungling criminal lowlifes repeatedly justify themselves by invoking the tenets of free enterprise, thus suggesting that the comparison runs both ways.
Goodman brings out beautifully the troubled half-decency and suggestibility of Don, the store's owner, and his gruffly tender paternal concern for his young gopher, Bob, a recovering addict. Bob's slow-wittedness, his desperate, inarticulate desire to be accepted by the big boys and his groping sense of honour are communicated with excruciating power by Tom Sturridge, death-pale, shaven-headed, barely able to stand.
Given a startling 1970s make-over (tacky burgundy suit, bushy side-burns), Lewis delivers a loathesomely funny master class in the kind of motormouth bravado that masks a terminal sense of failure as Teach, the rat-fink who contrives to muscle in on the plan by ousting Bob. With his preposterous, know-all glare, sententious forefinger, and aura of cut-price defensive vanity, Lewis's Teach is a paranoid slime-ball posing as a sage who's just reporting these truisms about the business-ethic (“It's kickass or kissass, Don”)for your good, mainly, rather than his.
You certainly feel the toxic frustration underlying the character's touchy, hilariously profane tirades, but as yet Lewis doesn't seem to be working up the energy of suppressed self-hatred that would account for Teach's almost nihilistic attempt to poison Donny's mind against Bob. Indeed while the cast have a sure command of the rhythms of expletive-laden Mamet-speak with its insistent, staccato repetitions and fractured half-thoughts, the pace of Evan's production is a little too measured.
But if the rancid testosterone-level could go a bit higher, there's an admirable sensitivity to the love that is betrayed (in both senses) by the botched plan. I don't think I have ever seen the tentatively cathartic, forgiving hug between the guilty Donny and the shattered Bob more movingly registered.
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