Review: Filthy Words And Schtick At The Rep’s “American Buffalo”

Published by on January 20th, 2013
(l-r) Charles Leggett and Hans Altwies in American Buffalo at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

(l-r) Charles Leggett and Hans Altwies in American Buffalo at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Review: “American Buffalo” by David Mamet. Directed by Wilson Milam. With Charles Leggett, Hans Altwies, and Zachary Simonson. Now through February 3, 2013 at Seattle Rep.

We have a sneaky feeling that the recent Broadway play, “The Motherfucker With The Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis probably won’t be playing at a Seattle theater near you anytime soon…it has dirty WORDS in it and even, a dirty WORD in its title!!!

Quelle horreur!

I point this out because there have been grumblings from a few season ticket holders over at Seattle Rep, about the currently running production of David Mamet’s 1975 Obie Award winning play, “American Buffalo”. Despite the fact that this play is: 1) An established piece in the canon of Great American Plays; 2) 37 years old; 3)A work by David Mamet, who’s known for gritty plots and even grittier language, apparently a few dim witted puritanical season ticket holders were unaware of Mr. Mamet’s “naughty” language and the basic plot of “Buffalo” which concerns three lowlifes plotting the robbery of a valuable buffalo nickel. Some folks were apparently disgusted by the frequent use of the word “fuck” in its various iterations (and other divine works of profanity such as “cunt” and “shit”) and the fact the Rep would stage a work featuring such repellent characters. We’re guessing that these holier than thou subscribers would probably prefer more treacly works like the Rep’s production of the inane “How To Write A New Book For The Bible”, which was written by a priest and could easily have been commissioned by Reader’s Digest. Why you would spend large amount of money to attend a show that is obviously not in your comfort zone is beyond me…apparently, these tepid theater goers have never heard of Wikipedia or the concept of researching the theatrical productions they plan to see. And, if one show in a season of six isn’t their particular cup of lukewarm tea, why don’t they give their tickets to “naughtier” shows like “American Buffalo” to their great grandchildren to enjoy?

As for the actual production of “Buffalo” it’s the usual lavishly acted, directed and designed show that you’ve come to expect from the Rep. They’ve brought in a big name set designer, Eugene Lee, and a big name director, Wilson Milam and two big name local actors, Hans Altwies and Charles Leggett to play the two main roles. It’s a professionally presented and engaging night of theater, “dirty” words and despicable characters not withstanding, and I have no problem recommending it to fans of adult theater.

But, the Rep’s “Buffalo” also suffers a bit from what I like to call, “LORT-Itis”. LORT stands for “League of Resident Theaters” which is officially a professional group of big regional professional non-profit theaters with money and prestige, like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, or the Arena in Washington, or ACT/the Rep/the theater formerly known as Intiman in Seattle. Don’t get me wrong; the LORT system is the closest thing we have to a national theater in the United States and they’ve provided theater lovers with terrific quality theater for the last 50 years. But, the LORT’s, at least of late, have a tendency to not take many risks, due to the uncertain financial climate and they shy away from anything too dangerous or if they do embark on a more provocative venture, like “American Buffalo”, it can be watered down or even made overly grand when the work doesn’t warrant such treatment.

Such is the case with this “Buffalo”. Mr. Lee has designed a gorgeous cathedral of a set, a rat’s nest multiple layered warehouse of junk representing the seedy secondhand Chicago antique store in Mr. Mamet’s script. It’s such a lovely set, that it got applause when the curtain opened and…it’s not really appropriate for the material. “American Buffalo” is a seedy, claustrophobic play about three rat like characters plotting some rat like machinations…the set is glorious eye candy, but it ends up being more of a fancy playground for the actors than the mundane setting for Mr. Mamet’s gloriously grungy plot and dialogue. I get the concept of having these “rats” run around in this maze, but it’s a bit heavy handed and frankly, the lushness of the set distracts rather than enhances the text.

The direction is also overly grandiose with a lot of extra schtick and slapstick not necessarily called for in the script, or, at the very least, greatly exaggerated. Mr. Milam has directed Mr. Altwies to play “Teach”, the mouthier, more physical of the two main characters, like a swashbuckling combination of Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton. It’s all a bit more manic than called for. Mr. Altwies is compelling in the role and his natural athleticism is certainly well used here, but ultimately his Teach teeters too far over into the world of comedic likeability…the performance lacks menace, despite the awful things Teach has to do during the course of the play. Teach is a loser, and you should feel some empathy for the character, but by the end of the play he’s still a scummy loser with violent tendencies and you shouldn’t feel that Teach is a person you’d like to go hang out with after the show…more appropriately, you should feel like walking on the other side of the street if you see him heading your way.

Much more on target, is Mr. Leggett as the more grounded Donny, the owner of the antique store. It’s a lower keyed performance and far more effective in its subtle underplaying. Donny is still a dirt bag, but his paternal instincts toward Bobby, the dimwitted younger character who acts as an errand boy, are carefully underscored and played with tender subtlety. As for Bobby, he’s interestingly played by Zachary Simonson, as a zoned out Asperger’s inflicted stooge that teeters on the edge of being overly robotic but Mr. Simonson manages to keep the character real and emotionally grounded. The dynamic between the characters of Donny and Bobby, and the actors who play them, are some of the best moments in this production.

The Rep’s “American Buffalo” is very entertaining and features strong work from everyone involved, but at the heart of it, it’s not very pure to David Mamet’s text or vision…it’s a little too glossy and candy coated and over produced for the Heart of Darkness inherent in Mr. Mamet’s work.

And, for the pantybunchers out there, it has a lot of fuckin’ awful, foul, fetid language…


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