Damian Lewis has made a wonderful comeback to stage in David Mamet’s modern American classic American Buffalo. He is headlining the play as Walter “Teach” Cole and stars along the great John Goodman as Don Dubrow and the young rising star Tom Sturridge as Bobby. Daniel Evans, who Damian trained with at Guildhall School of Music and Drama is directing the play. The previews started on April 16, and the play has just had its Press Night -or Opening Night as we say for Broadway – tonight! The play will have a strictly limited run until June 27.
A tweet from Dominic Kent in the intermission was some BIG news!
WOW. That’s huge. I just cannot imagine how thrilled the actors feel knowing (they would know, right?) that the playwright is right there in the audience. That should be the beauty of staging a play by a living playwright — chances are, he will be there for your press night!
And, now.. The first reviews have come in and made us HAPPY — Damian Lewis hits the mark with his portrayal of Teach!
Theater is different from TV and film, because only the people that attend the performance LIVE it. The next best thing for me is to read the reviews and understand the depth actors bring to the character they bring to life. This obviously applies to American Buffalo as well. I know the play well and I just would love to see the reviews and understand what kind of choices the production has made in bringing American Buffalo to stage.
I have written about the play, the plot and the characters as well as Damian’s return to stage earlier on the blog in case anyone needs a refresher. Otherwise, let’s indulge ourselves in the press reviews and see the depth and brilliance Damian Lewis brings to Teach.
As we move on to the reviews, in particular of Damian’s performance, I propose we all use our imagination and see him on stage — hey, we can do it with the help of the pics from the production 🙂
Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington says “Damian Lewis is right on the money in Mamet classic” and gives 4 out of 5 stars to the production.
“Teach is the more showy role but Damian Lewis avoids the temptation for flashy, fast-talking virtuosity and instead excellently pins down the man’s neediness. Lewis paces the junk-shop as if it were his private terrain, trashes everyone he refers to and resorts to panic-stricken violence. But there is a key moment when Teach is asked to justify his lofty pronouncements on life and replies: “My life, Jim. And the way I’ve lived it.” At that point, Lewis gives us a terrifying glimpse of the character’s awareness of his own hollowness.”
Henry Hitchings from the Evening Standard concurs with 4 stars out 5:
“A more predatory note is struck by Damian Lewis as Don’s friend Walter, a swaggering blowhard known as Teach. Sporting a bushy moustache and a splendid set of sideburns, he exudes an air of manic resentment, perpetually reaching for some new grievance. But we sense that his menace is hollow — a posture he’s learned from watching gangster movies. Lewis nails his mix of phoney grandeur and itchy volatility.”
Maryam Philpott from cultural blog Cultural Capital sees a Teach very close to what I have seen based on my reading of the play.
“This is Damian Lewis as you probably haven’t seen him before – the sharp aubergine suit, flares, moustache, and sideburns indicate a man who has a lot of outward confidence, as well as a love of style. A softly spoken American gangster accent pits him somewhere between John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Christian Bale in American Hustle and a Tarantino character. His arrival onstage alone heralded a peel of laughter from the audience, but Lewis instils Teach with a dangerous quality – he may be calm and compliant among his friends, but you get the feeling that one wrong word and he would brutally lash out. And later in the play you begin to see more of his frustration about being respected come to the fore. Still, it’s interesting that Teach obeys Don and tells you something about the hierarchy operating here which comes across nicely in Lewis’s layered performance, as well as that slightly deluded sense that this man thinks he’s more important or tougher than he really is.”
Ah, this is very close to “Teach” that I have known based on my reading of the play! Two things about Teach stand out: First, he is obviously frustrated with his life and with his friends, in particular Ruthie, who do not show him enough respect. Teach is pissed off that he can turn violent any moment. Second, he constantly preaches to others about how to conduct “business” — so is “Teach” — but he is, in fact, rather clueless about how to go about “business.” Neither his anger nor his business ambitions make him take any real action though at the end of the day. He just hangs out.
Culture Whisper says Damian Lewis steals the show and gives the production 4 out of 5 stars:
“But Damian Lewis stole the show. Oozing seventies sleaze with a flared burgundy suit, handlebar ‘tache and sideburns, he masters the gift of the gab. As the charismatic but usurping Teach he had not just the characters but the audience eating out his hand. And for all the flashiness, Lewis also reveals underlying insecurities. All the insidious self-promotion and confidence in talking down others is offset by a deep discontentment, conveyed in a rare moment of wordlessness and flash of frenzied action.”
Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts loves the way Damian eats 🙂
“Lewis’s timbre and accent worried me at first. Would a hoodlum not have a more tobaccoey rasp, a sharper throatiness? But as the performance plays out – and once some wearisome opening stuff about a card game is done and we tune into the patois – Lewis subtly threads humour into this delusional blow-hard. He also manages to eat in a splendidly American way: real macho chowing.”
Hilarious! Bravo, Damian, for eating in a splendidly American way — honestly, I had no idea that Americans had a reputation for their way of eating 🙂
Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish enjoys Teach’s “bravura” but he cannot see the “animal desperation” that he has been looking for in the character.
“Lewis – the lynchpin of the show – can’t be faulted for accent or technical accomplishment. He’s almost unrecognisable as he struts into the store (clutter magnificently suspended from on high, too, in Paul Will’s imposing design) in a magenta suit of period awfulness, slimeball shades to match, droopy ‘horse-shoe’ moustache the finishing comical touch. He’s got the faux-confident, gesticulating swagger of Teach down pat – as well as a counterpoint wariness and vulnerability – but for all the bravura, his turn lacks animal desperation – you don’t glimpse the precipice beneath.”
Now, with all due respect to this critic, here is my two cents: Does Teach really need to show animal desperation? I know that “blue-collar desperation” is at the heart of the play, and our three amigos, in Damian Lewis’ words “desperately long for a shot at their slice of the American dream.” Yes, they certainly do. But these men just talk, hang out in the junk shop, make plans for their big shot, and do nothing in the end. “Desperation” in American Buffalo comes out in the form of inertia rather than some “animal desperation” that would make these guys take some real action and get into some real trouble.
Art Desk critic Demetrios Matheou sees Teach as the driver of the play and says Lewis “milks him for all he’s worth.”And, in my opinion, Matheou nails it about Teach’s “desperation.”
“This man is a dandy of Chicago hustlers, resplendent in a mauve suit with tight-fitting trousers, a ginger Zapata and sideburns, and a feather cut oddly reminiscent of Pacino’s in Scarface. He fills the space not just sartorially but with Mamet’s usual arsenal of venal vernacular. Lewis has all his balls in the air at once – he’s funny, self-pitying, self-aggrandising, scheming, an encyclopaedia of bullshit, all underpinned by a whiff of desperation.”
Ha, a “whiff of desperation.” Yes, that’s it! It’s just a faint smell of desperation that you feel with Teach, at least based on my reading, and not “animal desperation” at your face.
And, I love The Stage’s Mark Shenton calling American Buffalo “Top Drawer” 🙂
“It’s thrillingly theatrical stuff, and director Daniel Evans extracts every ounce of feeling and fear from his three superb leading actors. A vocally and physically much-altered Damian Lewis captures perfectly the swagger of a man who suddenly spies an opportunity to make some cash. The bulky John Goodman exudes personality as the shop-owner while Tom Sturridge as his nervy sidekick suppresses his, both to equally stunning effect.
Mamet in top form is a theatrical wonder, and this production offers a top drawer cast to reveal the play’s intricate patterns. 4 out of 5 stars.”
UPDATE 04/29: Independent‘s critic Paul Taylor joins in with a glowing review for the production with 4 out of 5 stars and for Damian Lewis as Teach:
“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.”
Having read these reviews…. Now, I believe, the next best thing for the fans in the US is to lobby for this production of American Buffalo to come to stateside! Damian Lewis will be busy shooting new Showtime TV drama Billions in the fall, so fall is out. However, what about Spring 2016, ladies and gentleman? Fingers crossed all the way! Mr. Evans, please hear us!
And… it’s party time for the Three Amigos! They had an after-party at the National Cafe. And Damian could not help it when asked about what his wife, Helen McCrory, thinks about his ’70s moustache: “She has a penchant for Seventies porn stars so it’s going very well, thank you.” 🙂
Here is a few pics and you can see the rest on Getty Images Gallery. And we can have our little party with Guardian’s lovely “Damian Lewis on stage: From RSC to American Buffalo – in pictures.”