Two profoundly intelligent plays stuffed with profanity hit Seattle stages this month. While four-letter words can be the mark of a lazy writer, these two shows demonstrate how a string of dirty words can wake up an audience and make them think.
Taking a cheerful, toe-tapping, and, ultimately, hopeful look at the missionary work of Mormons in Uganda, the potty-mouthed Book of Mormon is packing them in at the Paramount through Jan. 20.
As might be expected from the creators of the long-running South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of Avenue Q (Robert Lopez), the musical leaves no poop joke behind and is slightly obsessed with the male anatomy below the belt.
As essentially the Mormon equivalent of the star athlete (Mark Evans) and the geeky fat kid (Christopher John O’Neill), the two main characters stumble endearingly into endless complications when their mission sends them off to Africa and the place turns out to be surprisingly different from what they expected after seeing Disney’s Lion King.
The one prominent female character, Uganda teen Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware), is the butt of a running joke about how one guy can’t pronounce her name but does notice what a hottie she is.
Told with all the gusto of junior high boys hiding in the restroom and driving themselves into fits of giggles with dirty jokes, the musical concludes with the Ugandans essentially co-opting the missionaries to improve their world through doorbell ringing and a very odd recitation of American pop culture.
On the opposite side of town, the profanity is pared down to just a few choice words, but then repeated ad infinitum in the spat out, hard clipped sentences that instantly mark American Buffalo as a David Mamet creation.
Written in the 1970s, this is bleaker, darker comedy ultimately ends in tragedy. No pink sparkly vests or tap dance routines here. Just three men trapped in a Chicago pawnshop who want something better than what they got and don't get it.
Women, and anyone else outside their narrow circle, are locked outside the pawn shop door, to be cursed at, objectified, and ultimately dismissed in a storm of crudity.
As the evening unfolds, and the rage burns hotter on stage, the laughs grow more nervous. Here, the dirty joke turns into a bitter rant against the system by the drunk swaying at the end of the bar.
With an expert cast (Charles Leggett, Hans Altwies, and Zachary Simonson), this is Mamet played right, with a wink at the wit and willingness to explode into the night with volcanic anger when needed.
In some ways, it stands as a reminder, just as Mad Men does, of how far we’ve come as a society in the last few decades and, as the same strains of nasty pop up on airwaves and even congressional debates, how far we have to go.
American Buffalo runs through Feb. 3 at the Seattle Rep.