BWW Reviews: Frightening Intensity in Seattle Rep's AMERICAN BUFFALO
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by Jay Irwin
As with any David Mamet play, "American Buffalo" currently on stage at the Seattle Rep has a few stock elements. Clever banter, high stakes and more F-Bombs than you can shake a stick at. Yes, if you're put off by harsh language then stop reading now and plan on seeing something else. But if you can handle the occasional (or quite frequent) colorful phrase then this production may be just up your alley with its stunning performances and edge of your seat intensity.
We go back to the 70's where we meet Donny (Charles Leggett) a junk shop owner whose dealings may not all be entirely legal but he's basically a good guy. He's assisted in his endeavors by the somewhat addled Bob (Zachary Simonson), a nice kid who's drug use has left him with only a few brain cells firing and who's completely devoted to Donny. Enter Teach (Hans Altwies), a fast talking opportunist who's looking for his next big score. And he thinks he's found it when he overhears Donny and Bob discussing an upcoming job. After a little finagling, Teach works his way into being a part of the scheme which involves breaking into a local home and stealing the owner's coin collection including a buffalo head nickel he recently bought at Donny's shop. But when things with the job don't go exactly as planned, tensions escalate creating a maelstrom of suspicions especially for the unstable Teach.
Director Wilson Milam has brought together a superb cast for this gripping tale and kept the pace fast and frenzied. He manages to keep the tension building throughout while not sacrificing the inherent humor of the piece. Although much of the laughter of the piece comes more from a place of nervousness of the audience than strict one-liners.
Altwies completely disappears into the role of Teach and infuses him with a likable nature combined with the dangerous. Sure he's an affable guy but you know he could blow at any moment. No big surprise for one of my favorite actors in town. Leggett matches Altwies note for note and moment for moment on the intensity but keeps a wonderful grounding to the character making him almost a safety net for the audience compared to Teach. Which makes an extremely explosive moment in Act Two all the more frightening from him. And Simonson brings a kind of damaged empathy to the role. At first I wasn't sold on the speech pattern but he makes it work when combined with the character's past. And his final moments of the play are nothing short of heart wrenching.
The set from Eugene Lee is quite stunning and its functionality is artful. But I question the size of it. I know we have a large stage to fill but a three story junk shop? I wonder if the show would have been better served in the smaller house at the Rep. I've now see the show in a big space and in a small one and small wins for me as it only amps up the intensity and danger in the intimate setting.
But well done Mamet is still better than most things out there and this is definitely well done Mamet. And it's definitely work the f***ing trip.
Photo credit: Chris Bennion