Hans Altwies as Teach and Charles Leggett as Donny in Seattle Rep's production of 'American Buffalo.' Credit: 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.”
But that’s only the surface dimension of “Mamet-speak,” with its fascinating repetitions, call-and-response confrontations and epistemological cul-de-sacs. Milam smartly emphasizes its stylized, even poetic character — “plain speech” that is anything but naturalistic, continually replaying the breakdown of meaning that occurs over the course of the drama.
Altwies and Leggett are two of Seattle’s finest and most versatile actors, so it’s surprising that this opportunity for an extended match-up between them comes across as relatively tame. I had expected something more incendiary — and more revelatory. Like Chekhov’s famous loaded gun displayed in the first act, you know something will happen with the massive cache of pillows Donny is seen hoisting in his junkshop at the beginning of the play. But when they supply comic pratfalls for Teach’s climactic outburst, it neutralizes the violence and softens the starkness of Mamet’s tragic close.
Milam has a strong attraction to the gritty, sardonic plays of Mamet and the Irish writers Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. His own take on “Glengarry,” which he directed at Seattle Rep three years ago, crackled with dark humor and showed a more expansive understanding of Mamet’s dramaturgy of communication, of characters who misread each other’s cues.
While “Glengarry” involves a con being set up and then shows its aftermath, “Buffalo” is all about perversely protracted exposition as Donny and Teach plot a score that never takes place. Especially in the first act though, the pacing too often feels slack, the reverb time overextended, so that we lose focus on the noose Mamet’s losers are progressively tightening about themselves.
The gigantic set, designed by Eugene Lee, (who was also responsible for the sets for Seattle Rep’s “Glengarry” and the current Broadway revival) by itself is worth the price of a ticket. His multi-storey towers of chairs, suitcases, lamps, hobby horses, bowling pins and countless other items represent a pre-eBay emporium of American clutter that dwarfs, and ultimately entraps, the three actors: material accumulation as a prison house. Geoff Korf’s lighting adds nourishing atmosphere to the nighttime act, and Deb Trout’s costumes amusingly contrast Teach’s sleek and sleazy flash with Donny’s threadbare frumpiness.
As he tries to play the realist, Teach warns his friend to “face facts” and not ignore human nature, the lure of greed and disloyalty. But this “Buffalo” production never manages to see much beyond the comic aspect of his own self-deception. If we recognize that we’ve also been there before, it’s history repeated a second time as farce, not tragedy.
If you go: Seattle Rep’s production of “American Buffalo” by David Mamet runs through February 3 at the Bagley Wright Theatre, 115 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-443-2222. Tickets: $15-$80.