Adam Sanders

American Buffalo

Theater Schmeater

Through Dec 1.

Nasty and brutish, if not exactly short, this production of American Buffalo, directed by Aimée Bruneau, gets it (mostly) right. Mamet's 1976 play profiles one day in a Chicago junk shop and three men who talk, worry, and fight over a robbery they're planning for that evening.

Donny (James Venturini) is the owner of the shop, a benevolent hustler who is trying to look out for Bobby (Trick Danneker), a young, eager junkie who just wants to be one of the guys. Teach is a toxic hanger-on who sows hate and distrust everywhere he goes. The characters are recognizable types (one could read them as God, humanity, and Satan), but thoroughly human. You want to think, "These people are fucking animals." But it isn't so. These people are just fucking people.

The acting isn't unimpeachable—the three stumble over a few lines and drop a few cues, which can spoil Mamet's famously percussive dialogue. But the performers have a fevered, desperate spirit, particularly Mark Fullerton as Teach, who flaps and sputters around Donny's shop like a spastic, pissed-off scarecrow. Michael Mowery's set is as claustrophobic as it should be, with shelves full of boxing gloves, crutches, old radios, suitcases, typewriters, gas cans, and other sundries. The theater's seats are only three rows deep, dumping the audience queasily close to the action. The conclusion, when one of the triumvirate is bleeding in a chair, one is smashing up the shop, and the third watches helplessly, is genuinely alarming. Even the chatty, drunk couple in the back row (who seemed like they'd walked out of Mamet's Chicago, with their leathery skin and thick smokers' laughs) were startled into silence. BRENDAN KILEY

H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House

Open Circle Theater at the Rendezvous

Through Nov 10.

Open Circle Theater's annual adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories are always worth attending, if just to admire the mad-scientist inventiveness of no-budget special effects and their love of the source material. Last year's production was well-written and well-acted, imbuing Lovecraft's people-phobic work with unexpected humanity.

This year's play is a different beast entirely, not least because OCT lost its home theater in South Lake Union and is currently performing at the Rendezvous, a theater in a bar. Perhaps because of this setting—where tension-squelching echoes of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch are plainly audible through the walls—Witch House has all the broad charm of a schlocky B-movie.

This doesn't mean it's bad—the low-budget special effects are as ingenious as ever—but you might find the sweet spot somewhere between laughing at the cheese and jumping at the apocalyptic demon attacks.

The plots aren't as clever as they usually are, and one is nearly impossible to follow, thanks to Lovecraft's hammy "ancient-folks" dialogue. After five years of digging, OCT might have tapped all the great short Lovecraft material. There are two "young-man-enters-a-spooky-house-and-faces-terrifying consequences" potboilers and two "men-get-overwhelmed-by-evil" stories. They don't have twists so much as explosions of malevolence, but I'm not complaining too much. All it takes to sell the horrible dialogue ("That fellow gives me a tickle!") is commitment, and OCT shines at playing the material completely straight.

The sound work by Larry Ryan is genuinely creepy, with rats scratching and an alarmingly loud demon-cat yowl. The other special effects—one actor deep-throats a flashlight, handle-first, to impersonate a demon; a chilling rat puppet skitters behind a semitransparent sheet—and the actors' pure-hearted love of the material combine to create a sporadically fun production. PAUL CONSTANT

My One-Night Stand with Cancer

Ethereal Mutt Productions at ACT Theatre

Through Nov 17.

When she was 21 years old, the playwright and comedian Tania Katan found out she had cancer in her right breast and had it removed. Nine years later, doctors found cancer in her other breast. Katan had another mastectomy and a hysterectomy.

Cancer is a solo comedy about Katan's illness, as well as being a young, Jewish lesbian who's into theater and has a slightly cracked family. When she takes her first shower after the second mastectomy, Katan realizes she doesn't have any breasts to tie her towel around, so she walks to her room with the towel around her waist. Her father is struck dumb. Her mother tries to be complimentary: "You look just like Ben Affleck!"

It's easy to imagine a solo show about cancer being manipulative, but Katan negotiates the pathos of her subject matter without resorting to emotional blackmail. The result is moving but not maudlin. BRENDAN KILEY