REVIEW: Steppenwolf’s “American Buffalo”

Steppenwolf displays Mamet mastery

 AmericanBuffalo-3 

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

American Buffalo

by David Mamet
directed by Amy Morton
thru February 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

No one would ever accuse David Mamet of being a feminist. Yet Amy Morton’s direction of American Buffalo, now onstage at Steppenwolf, so skillfully teases out the masculine value systems that both inspire and defeat the play’s characters, one might easily conceive of it as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist tract. Assistant Director Jamie Abelson, in an after-performance discussion, revealed how Morton engaged in a bit of Meisner technique during rehearsal and threw out the infamous pauses and italicized words originally written into the script—so that the cast could find organic rhythms with the words alone.

Mamet’s language and its rhythms can be the bugbear of any production. But thankfully, with this well-balanced cast, each actor displays sure and deliberate internal mastery, never resorting to stereotypical staccato delivery that sometimes plagues Mamet performances. Instead, each interchange between actors is smoother, seemingly more effortless, neither delayed in pacing nor rushed in feeling. The action proceeds with quieter, subtler intensity—each incidental phrase or action naturally contributing to the play’s crescendo.

Organic is the quintessence of Morton’s direction but do not read from that any concept of a kinder, gentler American Buffalo. If anything, from design to performance, Steppenwolf’s production is a sterling model of good, old-fashioned hardcore Realism.

AmericanBuffalo-1Three down-and-out men, Don (Francis Guinan), Teach (Tracy Letts), and Bobby (Patrick Andrews), conspire in a basement junkshop to steal a recent customer’s coin collection. The customer had found a Buffalo nickel among the detritus of Don’s shop and bought it off of him. For perceiving its value, right out from under his nose, Don feels “taken” and diminished. Robbing the mysterious customer is only fair payback, in which both Bobby and Teach, each for their own reasons, want to play a pivotal role.

These are characters that could have just as easily stepped out of a 19th century novel as this 1970s play. The audience can neither escape from their seedy, depressed reality nor from the worlds they weave with the language they have at their disposal. Language–and the masculine values they have about loyalty, toughness, and cunning–proves to be both their doing and undoing. With the exception of a few moments, this American Buffalo delivers a taut, energetic, densely layered, and finely realized work.

The cast has earned all the accolades that can be heaped upon them, but it’s Tracy Letts’ performance as Teach that brings the fireworks. From the moment he first tromps down the junkshop’s steps in a wide, cumbersome stride, Letts immaculately controls his role, pulling humor naturally and fluently from it, reaching powerfully into the depths of Teach’s desperation. He can turn on a dime according to Teach’s shifting moods. From cock-sure complaint over the cheating that goes on at Don’s poker table to garrulous lecturing on how to pull the most professional heist, from jealousy to creeping paranoia to unleashed rage, Letts hits all the marks in one seamless pyrotechnic performance.

All of which would be for nothing if not flanked by the terse, fierce energy of Andrew’s Bobby or the quieter bulldog toughness of Guinan’s Don. I’m especially grateful for Andrew’s (and Morton’s) complete commitment to realism regarding Bobby. As the young, slow drug addict Don has taken under his wing, realistically grounding Bobby’s character, without pity or sentimentality, lends a sharper, more authentic edge to the cruel world inhabited by these characters. There is something especially refreshing about Realism in an era of “truthiness” and I appreciate the opportunity to see it done full-bore and without compromise.

Compared to other productions, Francis Guinan’s interpretation of Donny may be the biggest surprise. His Don would rather talk softly and carry a big stick—or talk softly and carry a big pig slaughtering thingy. But for all the discussion of Don being the play’s Alpha Male on Steppenwolf’s website, Guinan’s performance looks far more like an older alpha dog facing the precariousness of his dominant status. While never openly contested, Don’s rule, such as it is, seems more like the sun setting in the west.

Don is clearly contending with the encroaching limits of age, of being surrounded by people one can never completely trust, of being attached to souls as flawed and incomplete as Teach and Bobby. It’s vulnerability Don dare not show or confess to; it’s vulnerability that blossoms like a neglected flower in the final exchange between Don and Bobby. Certainly Guinan’s performance is not perfect—his opening moments at the top of the first and second acts feel somewhat stiff and the classic Mamet fight scene exposes some anticipation on his part. But the last exchange of tenderness between aging crook and young junky is the play’s crowning glory. Guinan makes it shine beautifully and mercifully through the play’s momentary gap in its dark atmosphere.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

 

more videos after the fold

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WTF? Steppenwolf’s Patrick Andrew is gonna kick Tracy Letts’ ass!?!

Actor Patrick Andrews gets pumped up for “stage violence” day

 

 

Opening this Saturday, December 12th, Steppenwolf Theatre presents American Buffalo, written by David Mamet, directed by ensemble member Amy Morton, featuring ensemble members Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts with Patrick Andrews.

 

Earlier weirdness:

   

 

Also, the director and cast discuss their thoughts regarding American Buffalo, also Tracy Letts’ discusses his creative process.

This week’s Openings and Closings

chicago-fountain-skyline

show openings

The Addams Family Broadway In Chicago

American Buffalo Steppenwolf Theatre 

Christmas Follies Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus

The Nutcracker Center for the Performing Arts at Governors State University

The Nutcracker North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

In the Heights Broadway In Chicago

It’s a Wonderful Life Improv Playhouse Radio Theatre

It’s a Wonderful Life AFTRA/SAG Senior Radio Players

Rent, School Edition Studio BE

Salsa Sketch Gorilla Tango Theatre

chicagoatnight

 

show closings

CUBA and his Teddy Bear UrbanTheater / PEOPLE’S Theater of Chicago

The Dreamers Theatre Building Chicago 

How to Act Around Cops The Artistic Home

The Mercy Seat Profiles Theatre

The Mystery of Irma Vep Court Theatre

The Nutcracker Sings Jedlicka Performing Arts Center

Patchwork U.S.A. Raven Theatre

Peter Gallagher, Don’t Give Up on Me Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place

Stars in the Attic Gorilla Tango Theatre

Summer People The Gift Theatre

Time Traveling Mom-Dad Gorilla Tango Theatre

Towards the Sun! Gorilla Tango Theatre

Young Frankenstein Broadway In Chicago

Think fast: Little Mermaid, David Mamet, Joan D’Arc

 

  • Broadway’s Little Mermaid will close on August 30th, after 685 performances. A national touring company has been assembled, with Chicago being one of its stops (produced by Broadway in Chicago).
  • Gary, IN has requested that Michael Jackson be buried in his hometown, with the preferred burial site near a proposed Jackson family museum and performing arts center.
  • 17 years after it was written, Chicago native David Mamet’s play Oleanna will finally open on Broadway on October 11th.

Review: Creative Arts Foundation’s “Pill Hill”

Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood in Sam Kelley’s  “Pill Hill”

 "Pill Hill", by Sam Kelley, now playing at eta Creative Arts Foundation

The award winning eta Creative Arts Foundation wraps up its 38th season with a sterling production of Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill, a play that explores the journeys of 6 Chicago steel mill workers trying to realize economic and social success. Director Aaron Todd Douglas has honed his actors into a taut and dynamic ensemble. His direction shines at its best when it contrasts the vital camaraderie that unites these African American men with the unspoken truths, rationalizations, and false aspirations that throw each character into isolation.

Pill Hill is the black upper-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side where these men aspire to live one day as a sign that they have “made it.” As some take their first tentative steps away from the steel mill, others get left behind—Charlie, the senior member of the group, who has worked there since migrating to Chicago from the South and Joe, who cannot bear to turn away from a sure paycheck, even though the mill inexorably grinds him down. Kelley’s play examines the toll that success takes on friendship, while acknowledging that the price of doing nothing is certainly just as high.

There is much to be said about Kelley’s keen eye on friendships between the men of Pill Hill. Most of that dynamic plays out between Joe (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Eddie (Anthony Peeples), in the crucible of their desire for a better life. Much as they both share their dreams of getting out of the mill and onto the Hill, more goes unsaid between them about the limits of their friendship when the stagnation of one strains against the overwhelming success of the other.

Indeed, the whole cast, under Douglas’s watchful direction, construct nuanced relationships between their characters, where what is not said matters as much as what is. Therefore, much is made about Joe’s need to move on from mill work, but silence surrounds his encroaching alcoholism; Scott (Cecil Burroughs) gets to revel in his glory days as a prospective football player, but no one confronts him about his descent into drug sales once his potential truly dries up; the guys remark frequently on Tony’s (Corey Spruill) natural abilities as a salesman, but none question his growing lack of a moral center.

Attention, as well as praise, must be paid to the most riveting monologue of the production, delivered by David Adams, as Charlie. It is critical to the play. It grounds it in the recognition that success can never be as simple to African Americans as it is for whites. Success for African Americans bears the awful burden of reflecting full-fledged personhood and first-class citizenship. Tragically, material success may also dangerously expose a black man as being “too uppity.” Charlie relates the time that Southern police officers pulled him over for the crime of driving his new Cadillac around his old hometown. After they have terrorized and humiliated him in front of his family, Charlie drives back to Chicago and puts the Cadillac up on blocks, not to be driven again, until a new sheriff has taken over, years later. Obviously, having more than white bigots think you deserve can get you into as much trouble as having nothing.

While having it all and having nothing contend most dramatically between Joe and Eddie, it’s the internal struggle between the two that wreaks the most havoc with Eddie’s soul. Eddie is the greatest achiever of the group, breaking the glass ceiling as the first black lawyer of a prestigious Chicago law firm. He becomes the group’s living symbol of promise and hope. But one almost wishes Eddie could be a little less successful, but a little more content, as is dear, henpecked Al (Kevin Hope). Peeple’s Eddie is ready to crack under the burden of it all—the success, the compromise that success demands of him, and especially, the childlike adulation of Joe, who is already so broken, no attempt can be made to hide it. Something has got to give. The showdown between Joe and Eddie is searing and unforgettable.

It is my hope that theatergoers who are familiar with the north side will head south to see this magnificent production. Douglas and cast strike the right balance between playfulness and tension, humor and anger, yearning, helplessness, and hope. While some dialogue may be stilted, Sam Kelley’s work truly ranks with other dramas that critique the American Dream, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Whatever its limits, this play examines something that the previous two works do not. It explores the modern day tests that are put to an African American brotherhood that is, all at once, flawed, endangered, compassionate, and powerful.

Rating:  ««««

Pill Hill runs through August 9th, at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, located at 7558 S Chicago Avenue.  For more info and tickets, call (773) 752-3955.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 P.M.
Sunday at 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M.

 

For more info regarding eta Creative Arts, click on “Read more”

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Cool beans – a great Chicago theater is reborn!

organicphotosmall_1 From Organic Theater’s homepage:

In the 1970s, when Chicago’s vibrant theater scene was earning the city a national reputation as the place to be for exciting new theater, few companies shone brighter than the Organic.  It was quintessential Chicago theater, a mirror for its time.  Today’s Organic Theater is still a mirror for its time, with a bold new vision and audacious new mission. At the Organic, you’ll experience sparkling new adaptations and world classics rarely seen in Chicago, performed in rotating repertory by a permanent company of artists. The new Organic is an adventure –  artists and audience together exploring great stories, well told.  (emphasis mine)

 

The 2009 Repertory Season

 

 

Sexual Perversity in Chicago

and

Bobby Gould in Hell
both by David Mamet


 

The $30,000 Bequest
by Mark Twain

Synopsis and creative/performing teams after the fold.

Performed in Rotating Repertory
May 28 – June 28, 2009
Greenhouse Theatre Center (map below)

Tickets:  773-404-7336, or buy online.


Map of the Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre Center, home of Organic Theatre’s 2009 Repertory Season

 

    Organic Theater’s MISSION STATEMENT

Organic Theater Company is committed to a vision of creating productions with a permanent group of artists over a sustained period of time and presenting them a rotating repertory.

This approach, while relatively unusual in the United States, is widely accepted in much of the Western world as the ideal way to make a body of theatrical work.

Rotating repertory creates the opportunity for a unique relationship between the company and its audience, one in which the same actor can be seen in a variety of roles over a short period of time. It also allows the actors to work as a single instrument, much like the world’s great orchestras and dance companies.

 

 

  

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Theater Thursday: “Sexual Perversity in Chicago”

Thursday, June 4

Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Bobby Gould in Hell
Organic Theater Company at the Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (map)

Organic TheaterOrganic Theater Company returns to its roots with the 35th Anniversary production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago by David Mamet, which had its world premiere at the Organic in 1974, presented on a double-bill with Bobby Gould in Hell, Mamet’s darkly funny companion piece to Speed-the-Plow. Before the show, join the company at The Spread Bar and Grill  (2476 N. Lincoln Ave.) for a reception with appetizers and drinks. 

Event begins at 6:30 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $20
For reservations call 773.404.7336 or visit www.organictheater.org and use code “ELECTRA”

Next week’s Theater Thursday: Oedipus at The Hypocrites.


“Thursday Thursday” brought to you by the web’s best food, restaurant and wine guide.


For this week’s special ticket offers, click “Read more”

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