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All-black cast contributes powerful performances to 'Buffalo'

'American Buffalo' in Wellfleet features (from left) Hubert Point-Du Jour, Reg E. Cathey, and Paul Butler. "American Buffalo" in Wellfleet features (from left) Hubert Point-Du Jour, Reg E. Cathey, and Paul Butler.

WELLFLEET - There's one thing to be said for the basic expletives: Unlike the ever-evolving permutations of slang, the essential four-letter words never go out of style. Though deemed provocative three decades ago, the blistering lingua franca that David Mamet employed in his 1976 play "American Buffalo" - a character study about three small-time crooks plotting a robbery - reads as if it could have been written yesterday (and intended for HBO). If anything, the decrease in shock value over the decades serves to underscore the subtle dynamics Mamet set up between these marginal, stalled-out characters.

For the current revival at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, director Evan Bergman made the apparently novel decision to convene an all African-American cast. The wonder is that no one thought to do so before, because the play would seem to require no particular adaptation; it stands ready for anyone to take on. Bergman's real coup was in assembling such powerful actors, especially Reg E. Cathey as the volatile Teach, who gets wind of a heist in the offing and will not let up until he's cut in on the deal.

Cathey is a marvel as this would-be operator - cagey (you can always see the gears spinning) and restive (even when he's shocked into inactivity, you'll catch his toes still twitching). It's not until very late in the play that we glimpse the desperation that drives Teach, who, like any good con man, keeps up a good front. But Cathey gives us micro-glimpses of his cracks and fissures. From the minute Teach bursts in, fulminating at some supposed social slight at the hands of the never-seen, but much-reviled Ruthie, we know he's a bundle of misapplied passion. He even has intense opinions about the proper way to cook bacon. With the best actors, you have the sense of never knowing what they might do; in Cathey's hands, the role of Teach represents uncertainty squared.

Paul Butler - who, like Cathey, has extensive film and TV credits - plays Donny, whose proprietorship of a dusty, cluttered junk store (Anita Fuchs's set is a veritable rat's nest of useless detritus) makes him a man of relative means. Butler's Donny is an immovable mountain in contrast to Teach's electron-like spin. His motivation in initiating the robbery would seem to be a matter of pride: Offended by the way a seemingly affluent customer waltzed in and bought a rare coin - the American buffalo nickel of the title - as if he were pulling a fast one, Donny has assigned his young protégée Bobby (Hubert Point-Du Jour) to tail the man and case his apartment; it's payback time.

Though Point-DuJour looks far too robust to play a semi-recovering junkie, he hits all the right emotional notes. There's a puppy-dog quality to Bobby's interactions with avuncular Donny. Bobby may not be too bright (Point-Du Jour looks stunned and searching), but he knows enough to cleave to someone who seems to care for him.

What's the payoff for Donny in bringing Bobby along? Trust Teach to question the bond and to seek to undermine it. There are hints that Teach may have benefited from a similar mentorship: Certainly, many of his pronouncements about the difference between business and friendship echo Donny's warnings to Bobby.

Any of these men would be lucky to find either business or friendship. Pretending to be able to differentiate is probably as far as they'll ever get. But Cathey, in showing the cunning that gets Teach exactly nowhere, makes you feel the hurt of that disappointment, hard as a physical blow.

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American Buffalo

Play in two acts by David Mamet

Directed by: Evan Bergman. Set, Anita Fuchs. Lights, Kevin Hardy. Costumes, Carol Sherry

At: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, through Oct. 14. Tickets: $29; 508-349-9428, what.org

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