Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"American Buffalo" at Steppenwolf

Let's be up front about this;

David Mamet's American Buffalo is my favorite play, ever. I first saw it in 1991, at the Remains Theatre on a trip to Chicago.

Larry Brandenburg and Kevin Hurley with Gary Cole in American Buffalo

The play, literally, blew me away. In a very real sense, seeing that production sent me back to my undergrad work with a real desire to be an actor. (That trip also represented the end of my journey toward filmmaking, but that's a whole different story.)

In an interesting personal connection, and graphic example of how small the theatre world is, I was in a production of Dashiell Hamlet at City Lit Theatre in 2008, and the cast was discussing shows that really influenced their choices...I started to wax nostalgic about this production.

Well, the director of Dashiell Hamlet was Mike Nussbaum, who also happened to direct that production at Remains, and originated the role of Teach at the Goodman in 1975.

J.J. Johnson, Mike Nussbaum and William H. Macy in the Goodman Theatre's 1975 production

Boy, I felt like an ass.

All this is preface to the fact that I love this play. I have a deep, burning desire to play Teach. I, thankfully, think I still have about 10 years to get that done. I try to see every production I can, even when it becomes painful watching someone else make choices that I wouldn't. I've seen it done several times, and even made the intensely ill-considered move of trying to direct a cutting for a class in undergrad.

(Never, ever try to direct someone in a role you really just want to play...No one gets out happy.)

So. I am, as you might say...highly critical of productions of this play, and the performances therein.

With that in mind...I've never seen a finer mounting of this script than the one on display at The Steppenwolf right now.

Francis Guinan, Patrick Andrews, and Tracy Letts in the 2010 Steppenwolf production

Amy Morton has taken these three fine actors and allowed something that I feel like too many Mamet productions lose, the humor, to pour forth. Too many times, I find actors in these roles resort to shouting and macho posturing, without understanding the desperation and ridiculousness of that facade.

Tracy Letts....Look, I am REALLY hard on actors that play Teach, because, damn it, I KNOW how to play it. (Nobody's allowed me to prove myself wrong, yet...LOL) I have to say, I've never imagined Teach like this, but it feels so absolutely right. It's almost Jeff Bridges crossed with Foghorn Leghorn, and it's absolute genius. He nudges along the edge of ridiculousness, and in doing so, allows us to see a Teach that most people absolutely miss. The Teach that feels left out, alone and uncertain. It's amazing.

Patrick Andrews scared the hell out of me as the play first started. He makes a distinctive vocal choice that could've been an absolute disaster, but keeps it grounded and real. His Bobby was by far the most, well, stunted that I have ever seen, but I was amazed at how well this choice played out in the final moments.

Francis Guinan is absolutely grounded as Don, the junk shop owner, and really the center of this story. It wasn't until years after I first saw this play, after reading an interview with Mamet where he called the play a tragedy about Don, that I realized that Don is the protagonist. Don has to carry the show, to be the character that changes and confronts his own choices. Guinan has, by far, the least showy role, but he brethes full life into Don.

These three performances illumate Mamet's work in a way that I've never seen before. Each actor, in their own way has honed in on the elements of each one of these characters that plays to the show's thesis. I utterly reject comments that these characters aren't "real," or that the play has nothing to say.

I also reject those that, in response to Mamet's work, in general, say "nobody talks that way." These characters most certainly do. That, however, is a rant for another time.

For you see, the question that American Buffalo asks us is a very simple one; what is friendship?

Teach rails and blusters about what friendship is, while Bob simply acts out of love for Donny, his surrogate father. Don is the one who, in the end has to confront his own turn away from those who gave him the most loyalty. The joy of this production is that, by embracing the humor, they make the dark turn at the end that much more palpable and powerful. Guinan's strong and steady work grounds us for the final moments when we realize that even among these men, the dregs of society, there is love, respect and friendship.

If you can see it, you must.

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