“American Buffalo” at Seattle Rep

I just love Mamet, and I love “American Buffalo” best of all his plays. I’ve seen it in three different cities, and avow that this Seattle Rep production is the best of them all with its encompassing set and in-your-face actors.

The play centers on three men who mask their low-life existence as petty criminals and wastrels under the title of “business.” They seek dignity amidst the degradation and decay that make up their lives, but they don’t achieve it. It’s a play that explores the limits of friendship and the role of ethics. It’s a funny, gut gripping play that says much about American values.

The characters speak to one another in staccato outbursts of chopped up phrases laden with obscenities. What Mamet has done here is capture the poetry of the underclass. The language is vulgar. The words are spit out in half formed sentences. But Mamet creates music from the rhythms and cadences.

Charles Leggett, convincing as the scheming Donny who owns a junk shop, thinks he sold a buffalo nickel for too little and wants to steal it back with the help of a near catatonic Bobby (Zachary Simonson playing a dope-head in a Chicago Cubs cap). In comes Teach, the operator, given to violent outbursts, repressed anger, uncouth language. Hans Altwies is breathtaking in this meaty role that’s been played by such theatre greats as Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman.

Altwies struts like a rooster and preens like a cockatoo. He never stops moving. Shoulders lift, arms flail, gesture after gesture captures barely controlled rage, epitomizes the powerlessness of little men who want to make themselves appear important.

All this plays out on Eugene Lee’s terrific set where junk fills the stage, rises to the rafters, falls from beyond the stage. How lucky we are in Seattle to attract directors like Wilson Milam and set designers like Lee to work with the extraordinary local talent we almost take for granted.

Through Feb. 3 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

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