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Chicago by John Olson

American Buffalo
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

American Buffalo
Francis Guinan, Patrick Andrews
and Tracy Letts

Let's name three quintessentially Chicago experiences. Marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade? Attending a Cubs game in the bleachers at Wrigley Field? Seeing a David Mamet play performed at Steppenwolf? With Mamet all over Broadway for the past two seasons, it's time to bring his work back to the city where he first came to attention. What better way to do that than with a full-scale production by the most successful survivor of the storefront companies that were founded and flourished back in the '70s, when American Buffalo was written and when its action is set? The play has been fertile material for a generation of Chicago actors and their style of intense and realistic acting that has confronted audiences in intimate venues all over the city's north side. Steppenwolf's revival puts the piece in the hands of two of the city's finest actors (and a lesser-known third actor who holds his own with the other two) in a physical production that certainly must exceed anything seen in earlier times.

Mamet's play concerns the owner of a Chicago resale shop and two of his friends. The owner, Donny (Francis Guinan), has just sold a Buffalo nickel to a customer for $90.00—a price so far exceeding what he would have expected to get for it that he suspects it must indeed be worth much more than he got. Donny dispatches Bobby (Patrick Andrews), a young recovering heroin addict he helps and protects, to trail the customer and find where he lives so the two might steal the nickel along with any other valuable coins the man might have. When Donny's friend Teach (Tracy Letts) arrives at the shop, Teach joins in the caper. As plans are first made and then unravel, the desperation of the three men—living on the fringes of society in a neighborhood once white working class and now teetering between immigrant community and gentrification—becomes increasingly apparent.

Letts, who's been busy as a writer the past few years with August: Osage County and Superior Donuts, is back on stage and has entirely disappeared into his character. He's not only nearly unrecognizable physically with a ponytail and dressed in Teach's unbuttoned printed acrylic disco shirt and long leather coat (in the most colorful of Nan Cibula-Jenkins costumes), but he assumes a throaty/nasally voice and an accent that labels him as a member of the underclass. Teach is one of those Mamet characters who purports to have everything figured out and is too willing to share his wisdom with others. His moods range from indignation at a perceived slight by some of his poker buddies to arrogance and rage. Letts navigates all of these moods masterfully, creating a frightening character. We understand that Teach's bravado gives an appearance of strength that is appealing to Donny, but we see how it is false and dangerous to Donny.

Teach is about as big and showy a role as any actor could hope for, but the part of Donny requires a restrained intensity which Guinan, onstage throughout the play, gives in spades. Donny is melancholy and anxious, caring about Bobby yet frustrated with him over his helplessness. He seems to alternately trust and distrust Teach. Guinan plays these contradictions and shows Donny's tension building until he breaks. The third player of the trio is Patrick Andrews, whose Bobby appears simple and fragile. While the character is inarticulate, Andrews suggests Bobby has a depth of concern for his friends that he is only barely able to express. Bobby dearly wants Donny's approval, yet is fearful of him at the same time. Under Amy Morton's direction, the three actors deliver the multiple layers of their characters as well as Mamet's trademark rapid-fire cadences.

The play's setting is shrewdly visualized by set designer Kevin Depinet. The junk shop is in a basement, with a staircase leading up to a street entrance. It's populated with an insane amount of memorabilia and artifacts of Chicago history that might make the audience wish for the opportunity to take a leisurely tour of the stage itself. Depinet is quickly making a name for himself as a master of realistic design, with his work on Steppenwolf's Dublin Carol and the Goodman's The Crowd You're In With and High Holidays in the past year. The latter two are authentically Chicago in their architectural detail of homes in specific neighborhoods, and Depinet seems to be rightfully seen as the go-to designer for realistic drama.

Program notes make the point that the action of American Buffalo appears to take place in the Lincoln Park neighborhood where Steppenwolf is located. When Mamet was writing the play, this neighborhood was a diverse and changing part of town. Though 35 years later, the area is trendy and upscale (and the Uptown neighborhood is the setting for edgier Chicago dramas like Letts' Superior Donuts and Keith Huff's A Steady Rain), the situations and emotions of these marginalized people are still resonant.

American Buffalo is playing at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, through February 14, 2010. For tickets, visit the box office or call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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