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Theater review

The chief business of the American people is business, Calvin Coolidge famously stated. And American business, according to David Mamet’s breakthrough 1975 play “American Buffalo,” is brutal no matter where you are on the economic spectrum.

Now in a vigorous new staging at Seattle Repertory Theatre, this pungently seamy visit to a Chicago junk shop zeros in on a trio of inner city scavengers and schemers. For Mamet’s marginal men, a big score (or a big wipeout) is only one poker game, one deal, one scam away.

Donny (played by Charles Leggett, with a Chicago-ese accent and a cranky weariness) presides over a shop piled to the rafters with the detritus of a hyper-consumer culture — throw pillows, battered kitchen tools, mismatched chairs.

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Donny is also mentor and surrogate father to Bobby (Zachary Simonson), a lost boy who seems to have blown in off the street. There’s also Teach (Hans Altwies), a volatile lowlife desperate for a hustle.

Over a day of botched ploys and edgy interactions, these bottom feeders try to pull off the heist of a coin collection — partly to spite a customer who may have conned Donny when buying an old American Buffalo nickel off him.

For all their talk about being “businessmen” and prizing “loyalty,” their ineptitude and mutual distrust make failure inevitable.

There’s not much to the caper plot. The real coin of this realm is the men’s profanity-laced, syntax-tortured patois, by turns hilarious and appalling. Mamet was inspired by the lingo and behavior of Chicago con artists he often played poker with early in his career. But the vivid dialogue is pure, brilliant Mamet-speak.

Any successful mounting of “American Buffalo” makes Mamet’s colorfully evasive and revealing gutter poetry sound (almost) natural to our ears. Director Wilson Milam and his able cast accomplish that, along with a visceral physicality evident in Milam’s previous shows here.

Simonson, in an impressive Rep debut, has the stiff-limbed, cowering demeanor and anxiousness of a whipped dog. But you also glimpse the cunning of an ex-junkie just trying to get by.

Pacing, smoking, rummaging and bashing around set designer Eugene Lee’s monumental high-rise of junk, the shaggy Altwies looks like he hasn’t slept for a week. He’s in the grip of a festering rage that erupts in self-serving rants and macho bullying.

Altwies sustains a remarkable level of restless intensity in a role many great actors (Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and, in early-1990s Seattle, Paul Giamatti) have made their own. Altwies’ Teach is hungry, scummy, scary, ludicrous. One quibble: he heats up so hot and quick, Teach’s final eruption isn’t all the shocker it can be.

Mamet won’t simply let you write off these losers as seedy riffraff. He also makes them exemplars of a soul-killing American brand of bare-knuckle capitalism.

Teach defines free enterprise as an individual’s freedom “to embark on any [expletive] course that he sees fit” to turn a profit — even if he has to cheat, betray and “buffalo” others along the way.

Isn’t that basic credo shared, Mamet implies, by white-collar hustlers like shady real-estate sharks (as depicted in his “Glengarry Glen Ross”)? High-stakes Wall Street grifters? On-the-take political lobbyists?

Mamet has described “American Buffalo” as a tragedy, and a family drama. The tragic epiphany here is in Donny’s poignant realization of how low he’s sunk in letting paranoid humanity overtake his humanity.

As for family, and loyalty, it appears that all these men can count on in a dog-eat-dog world is each other. But can they?

Misha Berson:

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