“All that I’m saying, don’t confuse business with pleasure.” – Walter “Teach” Cole
Advance Warning: A sign at the entrance of Wyndham’s theatre warns the audience about explicit language in American Buffalo. I would love to imitate that and warn you all, for the sake of giving a detailed review of the play, I choose to use some of that explicit language in my blog post. So, please read at your own risk – thank you!
What would you do if you had a conference in Paris, and your most favorite actor is doing a play in London, and you have never seen him on stage before that you are dying to do so, and of course, London is only a two and a half hour train ride from Paris? Yeah, you would do what I did and book tickets for… American Buffalo!
So… I was extremely lucky to see American Buffalo last week, a pure acting feast provided by the ridiculously talented trio of Damian Lewis, John Goodman and Tom Sturridge.
I know that only a limited number of fans have the opportunity to see the play, so I will try my best here to give you all a detailed account of the play highlighting the fantastic performance of Damian Lewis as Walter “Teach” Cole.
American Buffalo has “blue-collar desperation” at the heart of its story. The story draws on a single day in the life of three guys, who, in Damian Lewis’ words, “desperately long for a shot at their slice of the American dream” at the expense of losing the only valuable possession they may have in life.
Don Dubrow (John Goodman), Walter “Teach” Cole (Damian Lewis) and Bobby (Tom Sturridge), more or less, span three generations: Don is an older man owning a junk shop. Bobby is a young kid, who mainly depends on Don — he is Don’s gopher — while he is, we get hints in the play, recovering from drug addiction. And, finally, Teach, the central figure in the play, is a middle-aged man. We don’t have much clue about whether he has a day job or not. He talks briefly about a hotel at some point in the play, so maybe he works there doing some odd jobs? But we really don’t know.
The play, in this context of three men hoping to make it, questions where “friendship” ends and “business” begins — how they do let money take power over their friendship — and makes us think about how big business and its “values” have changed the core values we held dearly for a long, long time.
The play opens at Don’s junk shop on a Friday morning. Don is having a conversation with Bobby who constantly says he is sorry. It turns out Bobby was supposed to keep an eye on some guy for Don earlier that day, but he missed him. Now, he’s sorry, and Don, even though he is not openly mad at Bobby, is not very pleased. He tells Bobby “action talks, bullshit walks” in business. We see a rather close relationship between Don and Bobby in this very first scene — Bobby is not the brightest guy on the block, and Don seems to care about him and trying to mentor him to do better.
Bobby inquires about a card game that took place in the junk shop last night. Don tells him Ruthie and Fletcher did very well, winning $200 and $400, respectively; where as Teach did not and Don himself did okay. Don says Fletcher is a great card player, and refers to him as an example for Bobby that people are not born with the skills they have, but they learn them!
In the middle of their conversation, the shop door opens and Teach enters drawing quite a few giggles from the audience — Damian Lewis with his, in his own words, “70s porn star” moustache, bushy sideburns (hey, my dad had them when I was little kid in 1970s, too! I think they’re kind of cute!), maroon suit with flared trousers and oversized eyeglasses! It seems Damian can pull a Travolta on “Saturday Night Fever” any minute for us 🙂
One aspect of Damian Lewis’ acting that never ceases to fascinate me is how seamlessly he can switch from one mood to another. His portrayal of Teach, the most splashy and layered character in the play, is no exception in this regard. Damian’s Teach is the perfect depiction of blue-collar desperation: On the facade, you have this aggressive and ambitious guy preaching to others about how to conduct “business” — so is “Teach” — but he is, in fact, rather clueless about how to go about it. Mamet gives us a strong hint about the character through his nickname; however, the know-it-all character comes to life in Damian’s nuanced acting. In his fantastic portrayal of Teach, Damian Lewis peels off the layers one by one; we start with the “façade” that I have been talking about and dig into a broken guy with deep insecurities and suppressed fury with the “façade” popping up now and then over the course of the play.
Teach is pissed with Ruthie (who won $200 at the card game last night). “Fuckin’ Ruthie, Fuckin’ Ruthie, Fuckin’ Ruthie, Fuckin’ Ruthie, Fuckin’ Ruthie.”
He was just at Riverside (their local coffee shop) and sat with Ruthie and her partner Grace. He took off a piece of toast off Grace’s plate, and Grace goes: “Help yourself.” Teach cannot believe how come these people who he thinks of as his friends treat him “like an asshole” and tells Don “the only way to teach these people is to kill them.”
Don suggests Bob go and grab breakfast for them all from Riverside. Yet, he has to work on Teach to make him have something to eat. Damian, in this scene, delivers a guy who is deeply broken. He was hungry just a little while ago as he took that piece of toast off Grace’s plate and why does he now say he’s not hungry? One cannot help thinking maybe he does not have much left in his pocket, and it is his pride making him say “I’m not hungry.” Teach gives in after all, and orders some “real dry, real crisp bacon” as the façade pops up:
“Tell the broad, if it’s for me, she’ll give you more.”
Teach goes on lecturing about friendship and loyalty until Bobby comes back with the food except for Don’s coffee that the Riverside guys forgot to put in the bag… Before he leaves again to pick up Don’s coffee though, Bobby reports to Don that “the guy” left with a suitcase, got into his car and drove away.
Teach, as much as he pretends his only focus at the moment is the bacon, notices there is some “business” cooking between Don and Bobby. And, you cannot take your eyes off Damian Lewis for a moment as the other two are talking about “business” because even though he is not actively involved in the conversation, he is listening carefully – it’s amazing. Damian Lewis can deliver without words even on stage.
Once Bobby leaves again to go and pick up Don’s coffee, Teach asks after “the thing with the kid.” It turns out Don has sold a “Buffalo nickel” to a customer for 90 bucks and now suspects that the nickel is actually worth much more than that… Thus, he is planning with young Bobby to take back “what is his” from that customer — the guy who left his house with a suitcase earlier today — and sell it to an interested collector.
Teach, the guy who has been lecturing on loyalty and friendship from the moment he set foot in the junk shop today, does not lose a second now in trying to manipulate Don to replace Bobby on the job!
He starts on a positive note, admiring Don’s loyalty and caring for Bobby.“This loyalty. It’s swell. It turns my heart the things you do for the kid.” And, the next moment, he is saying that he just doesn’t want Don’s business to go wrong just because he “did not take the time to go first-class.” 🙂
“Fifty percent of some money is better than ninety percent of some broken toaster that you’re gonna have, you send the kid in.”
Don finally gives in. John Goodman’s subtle delivery is no less than fantastic here that Don is trapped between friendship and business. He’s now convinced Bobby is not the right guy for the job, but at the same time, he does not feel right about breaking his deal with Bobby, either… That’s why Don tries to compensate by giving $20 to Bobby just for spotting the guy earlier that day and tells him they’re holding off on “this thing.” Bobby says he needs more money and is able to get $50 from Don $25 of which he is supposed to pay back next week. Bobby leaves.
We now have a hyperactive Teach looking forward to planning their BIG operation 🙂 He wants a crash course on coins, and declares the one thing that makes all the difference, when it comes to business, in the world: “Knowing what the fuck you are talking about…” and cracks up the whole theatre!
And, Teach being Teach, turns 180 degrees in the blink of an eye when asked by Don how he would get into the guy’s house to collect the coin:
“Hey, you didn’t warn us we were going to have a quiz?”
Don may already be regretting his decision to go with Teach for the job. He says he wants “depth” in the team, and wants to recruit Fletcher, too, for the job. It is a hilarious moment when Don calls Fletcher on the phone, with a mischievous smile on his face, but the line is busy, and Don tries again the next minute, and Teach goes: “He’s talking, he’s talking, for chrissake, give him a minute, huh?” He is obviously upset seeing Don does not have complete trust for him to get in and collect the coin. Once he sees though that saying yes to Fletcher is his only option for the plan to go ahead, Teach chooses to side with Don in the most enthusiastic way possible, so much so that one may think it was him that offered to have Fletcher on the team in the first place: “You, me, Fletcher… A division of labor… Security, muscle, intelligence.” A HUGE SMILE on Teach’s face. We again see the façade of a guy who is dying deep inside to have a shot at something, just something… And, Damian Lewis delivers it seamlessly.
Don and Teach agree to meet up at 10:30 or so at the shop and go collect what’s theirs. Teach leaves to take a nap. We see Don saying “Fuckin’ Business” as the lights dim for the intermission!