Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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Top 25 Chicago Plays of 2010

Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre '1001' - Collaboraction Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull' - Goodman Theatre streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
About Face Theatre presents 'Float' hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union Hey Dancin - Factory Theater Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
My Brother's Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre "Memory" by the Backstage Theatre Company Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - by Carlos Murillo "Oleanna" by David Mamet - American Theater Company The Water Engine: An American Fable - by David Mamet.  Picture: Charles Lang and George Zerante from Theatre Seven Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre's 'Candide', music by Leonard Bernstein, directed by Mary Zimmerman
"Scorched" by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project "Side Man" by Lauren Rawitz at Metroplis Performing Arts Centre "The Tallest Man" at Artistic Home Haff, the Man - Falling Girl - Zarko Theatre - photo by Laura Montenegro Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago Sarah Rose Graber in 'Book of Liz' - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

 

Top 25 Chicago Productions of 2010

(in alphabetical order)

All told, Chicago Theater Blog covered an astounding 508 shows in 2010—proving without a doubt that this town is truly a non-stop theater machine! Whittling 500 shows down to the year’s top 25 productions was not an easy task, but we think this list illuminates what makes Chicago such a dynamic place to perform and create – a mix of works produced by small storefront companies all the way up to large Equity houses.

So, without further ado, here – listed alphabetically – are the top 25 productions of 2010:

 

   
Collaboraction 1001 - Chicago Theater Blog
1001


Collaboraction (Sept 2010)
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by Seth Bockley
our review 

“The Arabian Nights” are replayed in a near-futuristic setting, taking place in the belly of New York City’s underground tunnels after a nuclear blast. Says reviewer Oliver Sava, “Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization.”. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called the play “savvy, self-aware and adroit at noting the power of myth in generations of sectarian strife . . .” and Monica Westin of New City noted, “It’s almost impossible to overstate the wit, fluidity and complexity . . .” of the production. (our review)

 

   
Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre
Abagail’s Party

A Red Orchid Theatre  (Feb 2010)
Written by
Mike Leigh
Directed by Shade Murray
our review

A Red Orchid Theatre brought out some of their best ensemble work for Mike Leigh’s class-conscious play about stifled lives in 1970s English suburbia. Director Shade Murray lovingly crafted middle class malaise out of Leigh’s caustic script, while Kirsten Fitzgerald lit the torch as Beverly–leading the tight and superb cast in a reckless, discontented charge to mutual destruction. As Susan, Natalie West “essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent . . . she becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.” (our review)

 

   
Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Awake and Sing

Northlight Theatre  (Feb 2010)
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
our review

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.  From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why, especially considering Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama. The play stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.  As director, Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton adeptly paced the show, no doubt helped with a top-knotch cast, including seasoned performers Cindy Gold, Peter Kevoian, Mike Nussbaum and Jay Whittaker.    (our review)

 

   
Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre
Baal


TUTA Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
our review

TUTA Theatre will remount its very successful production of Brecht’s The Wedding this February. However, their stronger tour de force was the young Brecht’s very first play, Baal, which explored the rise and fall of the ultimate rebel artist. Assisted by a brilliantly clean and powerful translation by Peter Tegel, director Zeljko Djukic and cast executed a searing interrogation of the subversive artist as pop idol, while at the same time delivering to audiences a wildly intuitive and anarchic performance by Ian Westerfer in the title role. An exactingly cohesive ensemble cast matched Westerfer moment-to-moment, composing the perfect Petri dish for pre-Nazi cynicism, cruelty and decadence. Josh Schmidt’s original music contemporized and rounded out the mood and atmosphere for the piece. (See our review here.) Tom Williams of Chicago Critic called the production “refreshingly inventive as it swiftly blends drama with raw sensuality . . . demonstrates what the power of dedicated artists can produce once they are in creative sync.” Albert Williams of the Reader called Baal “a vivid, dreamlike work of stage poetry.”  (our review)

   
Sarah Rose Graber in Book of Liz - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Chicago

 

The Book of Liz

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (Sept 2010)
Written by
Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
our review

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy had a huge success with The Book of Liz, so much so that it was extended numerous times, and is still running well into 2011. The show, written by Amy and David Sedaris, concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as “The Squeamish”. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. In this hilarious production, Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful when using the tight space, managing to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment. The Book of Liz stayed true to the Sedaris spirit, and fortunately did not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. (our review)

   
Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney
Brother/Sister Plays
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
our review  |  photo album

McCraney’s much-anticipated Chicago debut at Steppenwolf did not disappoint. Indeed, concisely paired with Tina Landau’s sparse and enigmatic Viewpoints direction, the triptych of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet formed a breathtaking mythic and generational through-line that consistently transcended time and space. To be a young playwright mentioned along with August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tony Kushner must be quite a heady experience. But Steppenwolf’s production—teaming with sterling performances by Jaqueline Williams, K. Todd Freeman, Philip James Brannon and Glenn Davis—shows that sometimes you can absolutely believe the hype. Barry Eitel’s review (see here) affirms Chicago’s critical consensus that “McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.”  (our review)

   
Candide - Goodman Theatre - Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina
Candide

Goodman Theatre (Sept 2010)
Adapted from
Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler 
Music by Leonard Bernstein, et.al.
Directed by
Mary Zimmerman
our review 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production. “Thanks to director Zimmerman’s affinity for levity,” said our own Keith Ecker, “Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible. (our review)

 

   
float-about-face-theatre
FLOAT 

About Face Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by
Leslie Buxbum Danzig 
our review 

About Face Theatre overcame the pitfalls of preciousness that come when presenting a Christmas story about five women with Minnesota-nice written all over them. Members of a Midwest women’s society, they gather in a barn to create the annual Christmas float. What could have devolved into Hallmark card caricature actually resulted in honest emotional plumbing of their lives, conflicts and pressures. Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig kept the pace brisk while the cast molded complex and full-figured characters out of Patricia Kane’s witty script. FLOAT became the new fresh face in a holiday theater season stuffed to the gills with the same old fruitcake. (our review)

 

 
Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre
Frost/Nixon
 

Timeline Theatre (Aug 2010)
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Louis Contey
our review

A reclusive, disgraced ex-president squares off against a glib playboy talk show host in a televised battle for public approval. TimeLine’ Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon inventively captured America right on the cusp–before reality TV but shortly after the boob tube emerged as the gladiatorial arena in which public figures are tried and tested. Terry Hamilton’s portrayal of the fallen Nixon impressed everyone with its grounded, humanistic veracity. Andrew Carter’s Frost signaled a smooth operator, fitting the jet-set mold of the period, yet heralding vacuous times ahead for civic discourse. Scenic designer Keith Pitts collaborated with projectionist Mike Tutaj to manifest the perfect facile realm for Louis Contey’s subtle and tense direction. (our review)

 

   
Haff, The Man - Falling Girl - Theatre Zarko - Michael Montenegro.
Haff, the Man/Falling Girl 

Theatre Zarko (Oct 2010)
Written by
Michael Montenegro
Directed by
Montenegro and Ellen O’Keefe
our review 

Master puppeteer Michael Montenegro and long-time creative partner Ellen O’Keefe created and directed two deeply evocative stories; one about a man trying to restore himself in order to begin a new life with a new love, another about a young girl dangerously desperate for the promising adventure that could be her life. An extremely dedicated and integrated troupe of puppeteers and performers executed Montenegro’s dreamlike dramatic creations, manifesting a fully realized, vivid revival of the Symbolist Theatre tradition. Sublime musical atmosphere directed by Jude Mathews backed up their efforts. The result was pure, unadulterated poetry for the child within the adult theatergoer. (our review)

 

   
Hey Dancin - Factory Theater
Hey! Dancin’! 

Factory Theater (March 2010)
by
Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
our review 

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle (Melissa Nedell) and Trisha (Catherine Dughi) give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K. (Jacob A. Ware), who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.  Says our own Keith Ecker: “The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.”  (our review)

 

   
hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane
Hot Mikado 

Drury Lane Oakbrook (Aug 2010)
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by David Bell
our review 

Drury Lane Theatre tore it up with this jazz-age revival version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic. Lawrence Bommer raved that its music director Michael Mahler had a “period-perfect Midas touch” and that the production “sizzles with (director) David Bell’s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-step dances . . . the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force . . .”  Aurelia Williams brought the power as Katisha, while Stephen Schellhardt worked his comic chops, recalling Groucho Marx, Stephen Colbert, Keaton and Chaplin. All in all, Drury Lane’s production was a unmistakably riotous success heard all around the Chicagoland area.  (our review)

 

   
The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
The Illusion 

Court Theatre  (March 2010)
Written by
Pierre Corneille
Adapted by Tony Kushner 
Directed by
Charles Newell 
our review  |  photo album

But for a few dramatic speed bumps between the romantic leads, Court Theatre pulled off a dense, ornately rich and multilayered dream world with Tony Kushner’s story-within-several-stories adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 400 year-old play. Charles Newell’s direction led the dance between reality and fantasy, while Collette Pollard’s set design established an delightfully uncanny magical realm. Chris Sullivan amazed as the magician, Alcandre, and Timothy Edward Kane roiled the audience with his comic portrayal of Matamore, the cowardly warrior. Barry Eitel declared the production an “uncommon delight” and a “triumph,” a love letter to the theater. (our review)

     
Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre
Killer Joe 

Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010)
Written by
Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
our review

Profiles Theatre pushed the envelope with Tracy Lett’s early play and gave audiences a sly, close, depraved and dangerous ride. Rick Snyder’s direction never stinted on its desolate Texas trailer-trash realism or let up on the work’s unrelenting dark humor and looming tension. Darrel Cox gave a killer performance as Killer Joe Cooper, hired by Chris (Kevin Bigley) to kill his birth mother for insurance money in order to pay off his debt to a drug dealer. Keith Ecker notes Cox’s facility to go “from southern gent to cold-blooded killer . . . all that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath.” Catey Sullivan observed that Profiles’ production was not for the faint of heart, yet its “blood-drenched, innocence-murdered gallows” humor in Snyder’s hands was “a thrilling piece of theater.” (our review)

   
Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo
The Last Night of Ballyhoo 

Project 891 Theatre (Nov 2010)
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
our review 

Project 891 created an intimate and emotionally mature depiction of a Jewish family of the American South right on the cusp of World War II and the Holocaust. Sort of fitting in, but not quite, informed by the culture surrounding them, yet set apart, director Jason W. Rost gently unraveled this family’s issues around identity, belonging and success at the Gunther Mansion (now known as the North Lakeside Cultural Center). Darrelyn Marx dominated as the matriarch Boo and Liz Hoffman generated much sympathy as her awkward daughter Lala. Winning and balanced performances from Sarah Latin-Kasper, Jason Kellerman, Lori Grupp, Larry Garner and Austin Oie rounded out the cast. (our review)

 

   
memory-backstage-theatre-photo-by-heath-hays
Memory 

BackStage Theatre  (Nov 2010)
Written and
Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by Matthew Reeder
our review  |  photo album

Director Matthew Reeder and cast evolved rich, enmeshed and powerful emotional journeys, from rehearsal process to fully realized production, from a woman’s struggle to tell the complete story of her traumatic survival of the Holocaust to a Palestinian’s story about his embattled and complex relationship with an Israeli soldier. Says Allegra Gallian of the Backstage Theatre’s production, “The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space . . . performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating us so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.” (our review)

 

   
Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - Carlos Murillo
Mimesophobia 

Theatre Seven (March 2010)
Written by
Carlos Murillo
Directed by
Margot Bordelon 
our review 

Theatre Seven’s production crowned a season full of excellent deconstructive theatrical storytelling. Margot Bordelon’s driven and well-paced direction expertly juggled three storylines regarding the mysterious murder of a woman. Oliver Sava noted the savvy Brechtian distancing wrought by the intelligent cast and the emotional immediacy supplied by Cassy Sander’s performance. “Sanders brings vulnerability . . . her scenes are the most visceral of the production . . . Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.” (our review)

 

   
My Brothers Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre
My Brother’s Keeper 

Black Ensemble Theater  (March 2010)
Written by
Rubin D. Echoles 
Directed by
Jackie Taylor  
our review  |  photo album

Though light on storytelling, Black Ensemble Theatre’s recreation of the dancing career of the uber-talented Nicholas Brothers was as close to seeing the originals as audiences are bound to get. Jackie Taylor directed an exuberant production overflowing with swinging musical finesse and huge dancing talent. Rashawn Thompson and Rubin Echoles played Fayard and Harold Nicholas to Thomas “Tom Tom 84” Washington’s musical arrangements and Echoles’ choreography. Donald Barnes and Dawn Bless warmly rounded out the tale as the boys’ vaudeville-bound parents; Michael Bartlett and Rhonda Preston added showbiz flare and power as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Big Maybelle. All in all, the cast excelled in reviving the joy of pure, solid entertainment. (our review)

 

   
Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet - American Theater Company
Oleanna / Speed-the-Plow

American Theater Company (Sept 2010)
Written by David Mamet  
Directed by
Rick Snyder  
our review

American Theater Company scored big with two searing, back-to-back productions of David Mamet. Director Rick Snyder had a field day building a war between a student and professor over a slight, but fatal, misstep versus a showdown between big commercial movie business and art. Darrell W. Cox expertly worked his range between playing a slick, cut-throat producer in one and a smug, self-compromised liberal arts professor in the other. The difference between the two Mamet works may have been Nicole Lowrance’s sympathetic portrayal of Carol in Oleanna, which rang more truthful and well timed than her turn as Karen in Speed the Plow. All the same, Lance Baker oozed fierce sleazebag perfection in his role as Charlie Fox, bringing Plow to a devastating end. (our reviews here and here)

 

   
A Parallelogram by Bruce Norris - at Steppenwolf Theatre
A Parallelogram 

Steppenwolf Theatre (July 2010)
Written by
Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
our review 

Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper. With this production it’s clear that Director Anna Shapiro knew this material well. She came at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieved the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play. Said our own Keith Ecker: “If you only see one play this year, see (this play).…the set design by Todd Rosenthal is amazing. …Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.”  (our review)

 

     
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Ragtime
 

Drury Lane Theatre (April 2010)
Book by Terrance McNally
Music/Lyrics by
Flaherty and Ahrens 
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
our review  |  photo album

Other productions have lost focus and been crushed under the multiple layers and storylines of this musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel. Yet, Drury Lane, under Rachel Rockwell’s knowing direction, succeeded in taking its panoramic 19th century sweep and transforming it into a work that truly earns the word “epic.”  Brilliantly cast with Quentin Earl Darrington, Valisia LeKae, Cory Goodrich and Mark David Kaplan, Ragtime’s spare and fluid set design was offset by Santo Loquasto’s lush costuming for the strongest visual impact. John Beer of TimeOut Chicago recognized “this Ragtime yields a snapshot of a nation recognizably our own: dynamic, idealistic and terminally haunted by bigotry and fear.”  (our review)

 

   
Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project Scorched 

Silk Road Theatre Project  (Oct 2010)
Written by
Wajdi Mouawad  
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Dale Heinen   
our review 

Silk Road Theatre Project breathed life into a contemporary yet timeless tale of war, poverty, age-old gender inequities, lost family threads, and finding a restored sense of self out of the ashes. Dale Heinen’s direction brought all the suspense of a mystery thriller without sacrificing the emotional weight that gave the play the quality of a Classical Greek Tragedy or a war story out of Bible. Three actresses, Rinska M. Carrasco, Carolyn Hoerdemann and Diana Simonzadeh, convincingly played Nawal, the Middle Eastern mother who mysteriously stops speaking 5 years before her death and posthumously sends her twin children on a quest to find their father and brother. Adam Poss was riveting as Nihad—the pop music and celebrity obsessed jihadi sniper who becomes inextricably linked with their lives. The sterling production of this new work announced Wajdi Mouawad as a playwright to watch. (our review)

 

      
anton-chekhov-the-seagull-01-goodman-theatre-photo-by-liz-lauren
The Seagull

Goodman Theatre  (Oct 2010)
Written by Anton Chekhov
directed by Robert Falls
our review  photo album

Director Robert Falls wowed audiences with a simple, almost ascetic, presentation of Anton Chekhov’s sprawling tale of a dysfunctional theater family. Mary Shen Barnidge of Windy City Times noted that the production demanded much from both performers and audience but “The experience is well worth the effort . . . with intimacy generated by this Spartan approach illuminating the smallest secrets hidden beneath the surface of the most self-effacing personalities.” Our own Catey Sullivan raved, “Falls and his rock star cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and glory that makes the piece fly by . . . When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.” (our review)

 

   
Side Man at Metroplis Arts
Side Man 

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (March 2010)
Written by
Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz  
our review  |  photo album

Warren Leight’s Tony Award-winning play was no maudlin sulkfest on the downward spiraling fortunes of jazz musicians tending to a diminishing art. If anything, director Lauren Rawitz followed the play’s emphasis on strong individual characterization and an unsentimental view of the unstable nature of artistic life. The tough, moxie and cohesive cast captured Leight’s humorous and gritty take on the lives of jazzmen and the women who love them. Michael B. Woods gave an especially stellar performance as Jonesy and Ryan Hallahan’s wry Clifford grounded the show as its narrator. Dustin Efrid’s neon set design gave the production the just the right touch of bluesy feel. (our review)

 

   
Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union
State of the Union 

Strawdog Theatre (October 2010)
Written by
Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
our review 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society.State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre, especially as its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. Infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, this work managed to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.  Geoff Button’s direction was commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he had to manage throughout the play. (our review)

     
streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre
A Streetcar Named Desire
 

Writers’ Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
our review 

David Cromer’s direction injected vitality and vivid perspective into Writers’ production of this sultry Williams classic. Barry Eitel remarked, “Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but . . . he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story . . . his Streetcar is a searing as July in the French Quarter.”  Matt Hawkins, Natasha Lowe and Stacy Stoltz carved new and original ground as Stanley, Blanche and Stella and Collette Pollard’s scenic design put the audience right in their squalid New Orleans apartment. Kerry Reid of the Chicago Reader wrote that Writers’ production “tears away at the Spanish moss of sentimentality that sometimes shrouds this play and lays bare our tragic flaws, both as individuals and as a people . . .”  (our review)

 

   
Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago
Tad in the 5th City 

MPAACT  (May 2010) 
Directed and Adapted by
Carla Stillwell  
From the poetry of
Orron Kenyatta
our review 

MPAACT gave Chicago a visceral shot in the arm with its world premiere adaptation about the aftermath of the 1968 riots that burned the West side of Chicago. Our K. D. Hopkins praises the outstanding cast that poetically depicts the community that survived in the ashes. “The magnificent Andre Teamer plays Uncle Brotha with the desperation and hope of a man watching his neighborhood swirl down the sewer . . . David Goodloe is new to America . . . His portrayal of James is like an exposed nerve . . . Destin L. Teamer . . . son of Andre Teamer . . . is an adorable and handsome young man in the 5th grade and yet he turns in a performance of a seasoned veteran . . . his portrayal is savvy and heartbreaking . . . MPAACT has produced yet another honest and powerhouse addition to the Chicago theater scene.” (our review)

 

   
The Tallest Man at Artistic Home
The Tallest Man 

The Artistic Home  (June 2010)
Written by
Jim Lynch 
Directed by
John Mossman  
our review

The Artistic Home evoked intense cultural accuracy and emotional veracity with their rendering of Jim Lynch’s turn-of-the-century Irish township, where people scramble for survival under British rule, the memory of the Potato Famine a lurking shadow of the recent past. A consummate ensemble effort by the cast brought out the best in Jim Lynch’s script. K. D. Hopkins writes, “The language is coarse and the action naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly . . .” (our review)

   
To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago
To Master the Art 

Timeline Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
our review

Timeline’s first commissioned play was a “masterful, multilayered experience that excites all the senses,” said Leah Zeldes. The production gently folded in Cold War obsessions about Communism with Julia Child’s discovery of French cuisine and her efforts to compose and publish her groundbreaking cookbook. (our review) Karen James Woditsch, Craig Spidle, Terry Hamilton, Jeannie Affelder and Ann Wakefield led the superbly balanced ensemble cast. William Brown’s staging was “impeccable” around scenic designer Keith Pitts’ charming Parisian kitchen.  (our review)

   
Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven
The Water Engine: An American Fable 

Theatre Seven  (Nov 2010)
Written by
David Mamet 
Directed by
Brian Golden  
our review  photo album

Theatre Seven took on a feat of virtuosity when they mounted this play-within-a-radio-play, with 10 actors taking on 40 roles, in a exploration of a Depression Era inventor’s quest to implement his creation, an engine that runs on pure water. The cast impressed with its uncommon professionalism, working together “like a well-oiled machine,” and Director Brian Golden “effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways.” Leah A. Zeldes called the production “beautifully nuanced” and while Mamet’s plot “is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful . . .” (our review)

   
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Dec 2010)
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam McKinnon
our review

Steppenwolf rounded out their year with a tightly drawn, tensely wound portrait of America’s favorite warring couple, George and Martha. Pam McKinnon’s direction insisted on greater naturalism, with Tracy Letts’ consummate performance as George taking on subtler shades of calculation and sadism, while Amy Morton’s Martha was distinctly more understated and vulnerable. (See our review here.) Madison Dirks’ Nick charmed as a budding player who gets played and Carrie Coon’s Honey almost stole the show with her emblematic mixture of goofiness and pathos. Kris Vire of TimeOut Chicago recognizes that MacKinnon’s direction “hugs curves in a way one suspects wouldn’t be possible without the firm rapport between Morton and Letts.” A marriage made in hell for the characters–but a marriage made in heaven for Chicago audiences.  (our review)

All summaries written by Paige Listerud.

     
     

REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Steppenwolf)

  
  

All’s fair in love and total war

  
  

Woolf-3

   
  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
   
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Pam MacKinnon
at
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $20-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Don’t go to Steppenwolf’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf expecting histrionics—at least, not at the level of scene chewing wrought by many other productions or in the famous movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Director Pam MacKinnon, who brought Edward Albee to Chicago for consultation at the beginning of the cast’s rehearsal, keeps a tight, controlled, and calculated rein on George (Tracy Letts) and Martha’s (Amy Morton) endless war. Theirs is a Cold War that begins casually enough with Martha’s little insults at George and George constantly correcting Martha’s language. Of course, their digs, jibes and strategic one-upmanship quickly escalate to a hot war—a hot war that requires an audience in Honey (Carrie Coon) and Nick (Madison Dirks), newcomers to the university George teaches at. One suspects a hot war is what they’ve wanted all along, no matter what the devastating costs to themselves or how many innocent corpses they leave in their wake.

Woolf-1Watch out, Nick and Honey. Who knew university life in a small town could be so fraught with danger? But George and Martha, bogged down in their own marriage and stifled career prospects, show the newcomers a taste of things to come at New Carthage’s institution of higher learning. George’s lack of advancement in the university’s history department gives Martha plenty of ammunition to assault his manhood; while the sexual accessibility of university wives, give Nick and George plenty of excuse to deprecate the whole notion of marital fidelity or professional advancement according to merit.

Happily, MacKinnon’s deliberate, exacting and controlled direction pays off in spades. The casual, understated and fluid way in which George and Martha debase each other or, from time to time, throw sidelong insults at their guests, practically draws the whole audience into the living room—into George and Martha’s “theater of war.” Only having a drink every time George pours a round would increase the feeling of familiarity with this situation and this couple. Once one is in, one is hooked. The cast almost seamlessly builds the tension to the point of no return. Steppenwolf’s production is within a hair’s breathe of perfection, what with Coon and Dirks freshly backing up old masters Letts and Morton at their seasoned finest.

Don’t be taken in by Steppenwolf’s advertising image for the show: Morton projects a Martha considerably more louche and tipsy on the poster than she ever gets to onstage. Onstage, her Martha, just as she boasts, really can hold her liquor; all the better to keep up controlled, savage verbal attacks as the night worsens. She and Nick clearly play “hump the hostess” for George’s cuckolded come-uppance and professional advantage, Martha’s sex appeal downplayed to a bit of cleavage. Thankfully, what Morton does not downplay, but expertly times, is Martha’s gathering, seething resentment at George. As for Letts, his performance pulls George deeply into himself, to instinctively attack from a defensive position, until his rage over Martha’s humiliation of him in front of Nick and Honey becomes too much.

To watch George’s face flush bright red just before an outburst is to know the depth of Letts’ craft and discipline. One does not–one cannot–dismiss George’s threats, no matter how soft-spoken or tossed off they seem. One takes them all the more seriously and feels all the more uneasy once they’re let loose. I’ve heard some say that this production exposes Martha as the greater monster. Not so. Letts’ George is equally monstrous to anything Martha can dish out—he simply chooses to talk softly while he’s figuring out his next move or his next lacerating remark.

As Honey, Coon does daffy drunk girl to perfection. She can go from silly to pathetic in a nano-second and signify both mindless fun and desperation in Honey’s jokes or interpretive dancing. The most vulnerable of all the characters, Honey easily reflects the damage a truly decadent environment wreaks on the naïve. Too clueless to know what is happening, she can neither oppose nor defend herself against the havoc George and Martha have drawn her and Nick into. Indeed, her abandonment by Nick, once Nick begins to try swimming with the sharks, seems almost a foregone conclusion. Coon earns that pathos and at moments steals the show from the other three.

Indeed, only Dirks reveals some blind spots in his interpretation of Nick. Laying low with Nick’s low-key participation the first act, Dirk’s performance really takes off in the second act, building clear camaraderie with George as he first gains Nick’s confidence, shifting into revenge when George betrays it. But Nick’s intentions become cloudy in the third act when, diminished to the humiliating status of “houseboy,” why Nick chooses to stay and wait out the final round between George and Martha becomes a muddled mystery. Nothing in the script explicitly indicates why. But Dirks has to form a clear motivation for that choice and play it distinctly for the audience or the credibility for Nick and Honey’s presence during the last stage of George and Martha’s total war is lost. It’s a small but critical omission in Dirks’ otherwise sterling performance.

Flaw aside, nothing stops George and Martha’s train to destruction. You’ll find few things more riveting this season than Morton’s depiction of Martha’s emotional devastation or Lett’s hint of sadistic control in the final tableau.

Revisit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and you’ll see once again how Albee’s masterpiece not only captures the disturbing dynamic by which some couples love/hate each other, but also how skillfully he grafts America’s Cold War game playing onto the portrait of a marriage. Throughout the play George and Martha’s marriage–marriage in general–is on trial. But so are America’s wars by proxy, its fallacious attempts at nation building and its imperialist misadventures. When will we ever learn that, in the end, whatever we call “victory” just doesn’t make up for the body count?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woolf-2

 

Artists

Cast

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks

 

Designers / Authors / Production

Author: Edward Albee
Directed by: Pam MacKinnon
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Lighting Design: Allan Lee Hughes
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Malcolm Ewen
Assistant Stage Manager: Deb Styer
  
  

Theater Thursday: Killer Joe (at Royal George Theatre)

Thursday, May 20th

Killer Joe by Tracy Letts

Profiles Theatre at the Royal George Theatre

1641 N. Halsted, Chicago

royalgeorge-killerEnjoy a complimentary drink and snacks from the Royal George Cabaret bar and then meet the team behind one of the most acclaimed shows of the year in a rare post-show discussion with the original cast. Killer Joe focuses on the Smith family, a greedy, vindictive clan of Texans who hatch a plan to murder their estranged matriarch to cash in on her insurance policy. Unable to bring themselves to do the deed, they hire Killer Joe Cooper, a full-time cop and part-time contract killer. Once he steps into their trailer, their simple plan quickly spirals out of control.  (our review ★★★½)

The production contains graphic violence, nudity and strong adult content, no one under seventeen will be admitted.

Show begins at 8 p.m.  Event begins immediately following the performance.

TICKETS ONLY $35 

For reservations call 312.988.9000

  
   

Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

We live in public space. We live in private space. What happens when the door between them opens? Our public/private self. It’s an animating tension in each of us. A landscape both familiar and strange. Home to our darkness and our brilliance. Steppenwolf’s 2010-2011 season: five stories that navigate the fluid borders of our public/private self and illuminate the mysterious ways each acts upon the other.

 

  Detroit
  a new play by Lisa D’Amour
featuring Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler 
September 9 – November 7, 2010

 

  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  by Edward Albee
directed by Pam MacKinnon
featuring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011

 

  Sex with Strangers
  by Laura Eason
directed by Jessica Thebus
featuring Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush
January 20 – May 15, 2011

 

  The Hot L Baltimore
  by Lanford Wilson
directed by Tina Landau
featuring Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Yasen Peyankov
March 24 – May 29, 2011

 

  Middletown
  by Will Eno
directed by Les Waters
featuring Alana Arenas
June 16 – August 14, 2011

 

steppenwolfAbout Steppenwolf: Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.  The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work.  Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 42 artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting and textual adaptation. For additional information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, www.facebook.com/SteppenwolfTheatre and www.twitter.com/SteppenwolfThtr

Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Subscription Series packages start at $135.  Dinner/Theatre and Wine Series packages are also available.  To purchase a 2010-2011 subscription, contact Audience Services at 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

 

REVIEW: Killer Joe (Profiles Theatre)

Family Dysfunction Makes for a Good Dark Comedy

  killer-joe1

Profiles Theatre presents:

Killer Joe

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
thru February 28th (ticket info)

Review by Keith Ecker

I don’t think I’m going to create a controversy by saying Tracy Letts is one of the biggest deals in Chicago theatre. The man won a Pulitzer and a Tony for August: Osage County, his play Superior Donuts recently finished its run on Broadway, and he currently can be seen at the Steppenwolf, where he is an ensemble member, playing the hotheaded Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (our review ★★★★).  He’s like a Chicago theater god, both in skill and his omnipresence.

Johnson, Bigley, Cox vert With all this acclaim and success, Letts’ name has become a hot commodity. And for theatres, producing one of his plays is a pretty safe bet for financial return. That’s why Profiles Theatre is smart to stage Letts’ 1991 trailer-trash tragedy, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe is a direct predecessor of August: Osage County. Thematically both pieces share many commonalities, including themes of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and death. Comparisons can be drawn on a more surface level, too, with Killer Joe taking place just a few hours south of Osage County in a trailer home outside of Dallas.

The play centers on an absurdly stereotypical Texas family. Their trailer home is a mess with remnants of last night’s McDonald’s meal scattered about the kitchen table, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes by the kitchen sink and a dog incessantly snarling and barking on the front lawn.

The father, Ansel (Howie Johnson) is a rotund man who feels most comfortable moping around in his underwear and watching NASCAR. When his son, Chris (Kevin Bigley), enters in a panic, begging for money to pay off a debt to a criminal, Ansel acts surprisingly nonchalant.

Cox, Johnson, Bigley, vertical Unfortunately there is no one else in the trailer who can help Chris out of his bind. Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Somer Benson), a woman who sees nothing unsightly about wearing a thong with low-rise jeans, is more concerned with herself than her own husband. Meanwhile Chris’ little sister Dottie (Claire Wellin) is the epitome of fragility and naiveté.

Self-reliant and having an affinity for schemes, Chris comes up with a plan to hire someone to kill his birth mother, a wretchedly abusive woman who has an insurance policy on her head for $50,000.

Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell Cox), one part Dallas cop and one part hired killer. Joe is the quintessential man in black. He has a booming voice and intimidating, penetrating eyes. And although his price may be steep, he always guaranties to get the job done. Just don’t ask too many questions.

The play is an engaging tale that plays out like a redneck soap opera or a trailer park Shakespearean tragedy. Still, at times the characters can come across as one-dimensional. Ansel is a big dumb idiot; Chris is a hotheaded rebel and Sharla is a skank. Dottie, who takes on the role of the sacrificial virgin, is the one character that undergoes dramatic change throughout the course of the play. Somewhat of a dark comedy, when the humor hits, it’s tragically funny. But there’s a lot of grave seriousness too, including some uncomfortable but well staged scenes involving sex and violence.

Cox does a good job playing Joe’s multiple facets, from southern gent to cold-blooded killer. His performance makes it that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath. However, the younger actors, Bigley and Wellin, seemed to struggle reaching emotional depth. Bigley plays angry and frustrated well, but he seems to be stuck on a single gear. The same can be said for Wellin, except replace angry and frustrated with melancholy and aloof.

killer-joeSteppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder’s direction is magnificent. The theater is a small space flanked by the audience on either side. Cramming five actors into one scene is no easy task. But even in the most action-intense segments, the stage never seems overcrowded. In addition, scenes of violence and sexual abuse are not treated as gratuitous, but rather are staged in a manner that speaks to the core of the characters.

Killer Joe isn’t Letts’ most significant contribution to theatre. But it’s an entertaining play. Although not without a few flaws, Profiles Theatre’s production succeeds in adroitly transporting the audience to a tiny Texas trailer filled with family dysfunction.

 

Rating: ★★★½

Additional review: Chicago Examiner

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: ★★★★

 

 

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