MET's 'American Buffalo' memorable, vital

David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” first staged in the mid-1970s, remains as vital a piece of theater as it ever was.

That, among other things, is what I took away from Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s crackling production of the three-character drama about small-time crooks in Chicago.

The theater company’s space at 1824 Walnut has an authentic off-Broadway feel, thanks to church-pew seating, exposed brick walls and ancient skylights. In some respects it’s an ideal setting for “American Buffalo,” which is set entirely in a junk shop (artfully realized by scenic designer Sam Wright and props master Courtney Stephens, who provided the convincing. claustrophobic clutter.)

Director Bob Paisley marshals his actors effectively and keeps the pacing taut as he invites us into a seedy, bizarre subculture where Don, the junk-shop owner (Paul Orwick), tries to set up a coin-collection heist.

The scheme seems doomed to failure from the outset because Don has selected a young junkie named Bobby (Dan Hillaker) to do the job for him. When Don’s friend Teach (Forrest Attaway) arrives, he promptly invites himself into the enterprise but really seems too frantic, talkative and abusive to be an effective thief.

Indeed, Attaway is the reason to see this show. Orwick and Hillaker provide solid performances (although Hillaker needs to learn how to project his voice), but Attaway delivers an explosively entertaining turn on a level that local theatergoers rarely get to see.

Attaway’s sharply executed vision of Teach as a coked-up, verbose, pseudo-philosopher yields an exceptional performance that is at once richly comic and unsettling.

Mamet’s idea that business and commerce — even on the small-time criminal level — is one of the distinguishing characteristics of civilization is clearly articulated. So is the playwright’s customary concern with ethics, even within the world of treacherous crooks.

All in all this is a memorable piece of work.

American Buffalo runs through Sunday at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 1824 Walnut St. Tickets: $20; 816-531-9464;