London productions of American Buffalo (Donmar Warehouse) and Speed-the-Plow (New Ambassadors Theatre).
UK PRODUCTIONS IN 2000
By David Mamet
Donmar Warehouse. London. 3-26 February 2000
David Mamet noted that when American Buffalo was first performed in the mid-1970s, the enraged response of the businessmen in the audience was a sure sign that they had recognised the play was about them. Famously, some prominent critics missed the point. It would be harder to make the same mistake today at the Donmar Warehouse, situated in a part of Covent Garden rife with city traders vomiting in the streets. Kevin Rigdon’s fine set for Neil Pepe’s Atlantic Theater Company production avoids both historical accuracy and the clichés of underclass despair. Instead, amidst the clutter are signs of wealth (guitars, rather a fetching glass cabinet), and one suspects that the shop would need only a corporate logo to entice today’s twentysomethings to enter and browse the seventies relics for valuable items of retro-chic. William H. Macy’s Teach is the embodiment of this cultural, historical and economic confusion: the slicked-back hair would not be out of place on today’s stock market floors, let alone those of the 1980s. but the moustache, which could have been stolen from Eugene O’Neill’s face, looks seedy and derelict.
If the production design is a free gift to anyone with time to spend pontificating about the erasure of history in postmodern culture, Macy’s performance captures what is at stake when actions no longer seem grounded in meaning. In the other productions I have seen Teach has been a ranter, unaware that his verbal self-contradictions will precipitate a catastrophe. A feature of Macy’s acting, however, has always been the ability of that cherubic face to fall in an instant, and the effect of this in the tiny space at the Donmar is electrifying. As the words come out of his mouth this Teach will pause, the facial expression indicating full awareness of the absurdity of what he is saying. And yet he continues, compelled, it seems, more by syntax than by logic to complete the sentence. In the days when he saw the interview as a dialogue rather than an art form Mamet used to discuss the ways in which language constructs actions; the point has never been more clearly demonstrated. Crucial, too, is Philip Baker Hall’s Don, every bit the equal of Teach, quite merciless at times in exposing the emptiness of his rhetoric. At the Donmar Teach is less Don’s Mephistophelian tempter than simply what Mamet says he is: Don’s friend and associate. These are two men who know what they are doing; their betrayal of Mark Webber’s stumbling, innocent, helpless Bobby is all the more shocking.
By David Mamet
New Ambassadors, London. 16 March — 22 April 2000
The essential passivity of the three characters of American Buffalo contrasts with the will to power of the three figures who populate Speed-the-Plow, in which the key to survival for Fox and for Karen is persuasion. At the New Ambassadors. Mark Strong is excellent as Bobby Gould. slick but not devious in his knowing moral vacillations in the first act, convincingly stunned, then hypnotised. by Karen’s apparent naivete in the second. The problem lies in the other two performances. Karen’s is much the most difficult role because it bears the full weight of the play’s ambiguity, but here Kimberley Williams and director Peter Gill take the easy option of making her an air-head played for laughs in the first act. If her second-act conversion of Gould becomes incredible as a result, we can always conclude that the play is nothing more or less than a brilliant comic satire on Hollywood. That entails losing faith in the dramatic structure, however, and the third act. which ought to be a tense battle between Fox and Karen for Gould’s favour, becomes simply embarrassing, as a goggle-eyed Gould is physically chased around the set by the others in a scene reminiscent of the kind of thing that sometimes happens in amateur productions of farces when the director has run out of ideas. As Fox, the playwright Patrick Marber, who directed the superb London premiere of The Old Neighbourhood. is one-dimensional, rolling his shoulders like an ape and tending simply to shout at Gould: how he could be taken in by either of them remains a mystery. Marber’s participation. and Strong’s performance, would suggest that this was conceived as a more serious production, but its recent transfer to the Duke of York’s with a new cast starring as Fox Neil Morrissey, well-known in Britain as a sitcom actor specialising in laddish dolts, makes one wonder.
UNIVERSITY OF WALES, BANGOR