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Seattle Rep’s “Buffalo” doesn’t roam wildly enough

Despite an excellent pair of lead actors, something fizzles in the delivery of Mamet's normally uncanny resonance.
Hans Altwies as Teach and Charles Leggett as Donny in Seattle Rep's production of 'American Buffalo.'

Hans Altwies as Teach and Charles Leggett as Donny in Seattle Rep's production of 'American Buffalo.' Photo: Seattle Rep

 

This season was supposed to be a banner year for David Mamet: a new play (“The Anarchist”) set to open on Broadway and, just down the block on W. 45th, a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross,” starring Al Pacino and directed by former Seattle Rep head honcho Daniel Sullivan. And as one of the major offerings of its 50th-anniversary season, the Rep has just launched a new production of Mamet’s landmark play from 1975, “American Buffalo”.

But “The Anarchist” turned out to be a critical and commercial flop and closed after an embarrassingly abbreviated two-week run. And while “Glengarry” has predictably turned out to be a box-office hit — this time Pacino takes on the part of Shelley “the Machine” Levene — the production’s air of self-conscious, self-congratulatory revival dulls the knife-sharp ferocity essential to Mamet’s vision.

So what about Seattle Rep’s “American Buffalo”? Along with “Glengarry,” this play should sting and burn with uncanny resonance. Both works justly enjoy the status of contemporary masterpieces. “Buffalo”’s post-Vietnam malaise coupled with the Reagan-era ethics of “Glengarry” should, if anything, add up to a one-two knockout punch of devastating topicality for another generation done in by cutthroat greed.

There’s a moment in Pacino’s current portrayal of Shelley where he suddenly sees through the pattern of lies and becomes aware that as a con artist, his most impressive mark has been himself. But aside from this, the “Glengarry” revival allows the audience to feel too comfortable, too ready to chuckle with comic Schadenfreude at these foul-mouthed clowns and their screw-ups. 

Seattle Rep’s “Buffalo” prompted a remarkably similar reaction for me. Moments here and there in director Wilson Milam’s staging ring cuttingly true. But others come perilously close to seeing the Three Stooges perform “Waiting for Godot.” The entire experience never rises for long above the impression of a sitcomish day in the life of a trio of wannabe crooks.

For junkshop owner Donny (Charles Leggett), it’s about the chance to get revenge after a (never seen) coin collector talked him into underselling a valuable buffalo nickel. Leggett plays Donny as a gruffly didactic, avuncular know-it-all who lectures on the importance of breakfast, but freaks out at the sight of a gun. He treats his teenage shop gofer Bobby (newcomer Zachary Simonson) as his project, blithely setting up a self-improvement program that includes having the kid share in the planned robbery. 

Perhaps to indicate a lingering drug-addled state, Simonson delivers a bizarrely one-note, affectless, slow-witted portrayal of Bobby, which makes Mamet’s language seem all the more exaggeratedly stylized.

When Hans Altwies bursts on the scene as the ever-fidgety Teach, he carries in a terrific gust of paranoid machismo that momentarily sets the production on a new course. His energy complicates the previously static scene. Altwies is marvelous at underlining Teach’s contradictions as a cocky but fearful hustler, a fast-talking, chain-smoking street philosopher. His understanding of “business” and its risks is poles apart from Donny’s more-cautious reserve. But despite all the nuance and jittery, detailed physical presence he brings to the role, there’s seldom any sense of actual menace or danger lurking in Teach until his final, Sam Shepard-esque fit of rage.

The two lowlife leads, Donny and his bossy pal Teach, constantly analyze what’s happening while the heist they’ve planned is not happening — one of Mamet’s central ironies. In this production though, their exchanges often come across as too self-conscious. The problem is that, without the accompanying tension, this stylized approach devolves into mannered word games. Long gaps and pauses seem leisurely rather than loaded, as phrases ricochet back and forth.

Mamet's notorious pyrotechnical displays of profanity elicit little more than bemused tittering from the audience. Of course one challenge of any Mamet revival is that the shock effect of the foul language has long since worn off. A few minutes of “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood” can be crammed with more serious cursing per square inch than the entire script of “Buffalo.”


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