Three small-time crooks go out on a limb for one big job in "American Buffalo."

The thrill of the heist is often at the core of David Mamet's finest works. From the shady real estate salesmen of "Glengarry Glen Ross" to the Hollywood sharks of "Speed the Plow," Mamet nails the cutthroat nature of doing business in America.

In his breakthrough "American Buffalo," which debuted on Broadway in 1977 and established the playwright as a bracing new voice, the bard of the underclass, he examines the fickle nature of honor among thieves. Three two-bit hoods botch a con game, but good, in this explosive revival that runs through July 13 at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre. It's a tragedy of errors spinning around greed, robbery and a vintage buffalo nickel.

Slyly orchestrated by Barbara Damashek, this is a vulgar symphony of desperation and epithets played by a top-notch cast, including the invaluable James Carpenter.

Clad in a period-perfect rust-colored polyester leisure suit, Carpenter prowls into a ramshackle Chicago junk shop (vintage costumes by Cassandra Carpenter and gritty set by Eric E. Sinkkonen) that reeks of urban decay, spewing f-bombs and setting the tone for the downfall of this little band of thugs. His Teach is a formidable loser, full of schemes and swagger, flailing amid a tanking economy where the little guy is on the way to extinction.

This is capitalism as blood sport, and the palpable hint of menace is what makes this two-act testosterone standoff so timely and urgent in today's volatile economy. One of the Pulitzer-winning playwright's gifts is his revealing insights into the nuances of the art of the swindle, from the bottom rungs to the big leagues.

The amount of money involved here is likely quite modest, but that fact never deters these small-time crooks, because they live so close to the edge that every dollar lands with impact in their frayed wallets.

Teach thinks he sees a way to get on top, and the predatory gleam in Carpenter's eyes is unmistakable. He's a hustler gone to seed, and when he tries to horn in on Donny (the deft Paul Vincent O'Connor) and Bobby's (Rafael Jordan) rare-coin swindle, morals go out the window. All that matters is the hunt.

O'Connor, an Ashland veteran, imbues Donny with a haunted quality that foreshadows his impact on Bobby, a slow-witted gofer with an ill-fated yearning to play with the big boys. Jordan delicately mines Bobby's trusting nature. He tries so hard to tell his father figures what they want to hear that he doesn't listen to the doom in their voices.

All three men share a real fondness for their little tribe of connivers and hoods (several other characters are mentioned but never appear on stage), but when there is the faintest whiff of a profit to be made, humanity turns out to be a house of cards destined to fall.

Everyone's a mark in a world where affection is weakness, integrity is obsolete and grifters are always on the make.

Damashek is an astute director, and her finesse with Mamet's staccato cadence gives this sleek two-hour revival its bracing power. Even if you have seen this American classic before, this tale of a big con gone awry will punch you in the gut. Hard.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'American Buffalo'
By David Mamet, presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Through: July 20
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours,
one intermission
Tickets: $32-$50,
510-843-4822,
www.auroratheatre.org