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Columnist
Steppenwolf revival delivers near-perfect 'American Buffalo'
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Columnist

Francis Guinan, left, Patrick Andrews and Tracy Letts star in Steppenwolf Theatre's superb revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo."

 

Francis Guinan, left, and Tracy Letts deliver what amounts to a master class in Mamet in director Amy Morton's revival of the David Mamet classic, "American Buffalo."

 

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Published: 12/18/2009 12:00 AM

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"American Buffalo"

Four stars

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 14; no performances Thursday, Dec. 24, Friday, Dec. 25, and Friday, Jan. 1; Sunday evening performances through Jan. 10 only; also 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 13, 20, 27 and Feb. 3

Running time: One hour, 45 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $20-$77

Parking: $9 in Steppenwolf garage

Rating: For adults

Few plays offer better entrée into David Mamet's oeuvre than "American Buffalo," the playwright's still-resonant drama from 1975 about a trio of small-time Chicago hoodlums plotting a coin heist.

And few ensembles could execute a revival as faithfully as Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, whose bracing, superbly acted production reflects the desperation, despair and underlying brutality that characterize Mamet's most memorable dramas.

If you want to experience a Mamet play the way it should be experienced, this is the production to see.

A condemnation of capitalism filtered through the prism of a petty crime, "American Buffalo" echoes recurring Mamet themes: power (getting it, keeping it, preventing others from exercising it), betrayal, fractured friendships and the tragedy that can result from the failed pursuit of the American dream.

The play also contains Mamet's lean, stylized language and the singular rhythms that define it. As director Amy Morton once observed, Mamet's dialogue demands extensive rehearsal to make it sound as effortless and unaffected as it does coming from the mouths of Morton's top-flight cast, which includes ensemble members Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts, as well as Patrick Andrews, in an impressive Steppenwolf debut.

The action unfolds in 1975 in a subterranean resale shop located in a less-than-genteel Chicago neighborhood. Its spot at the bottom of a steep staircase is indicative of this trio's position on the lowest rung of the city's criminal hierarchy. Scrupulously designed by Kevin Depinet, the shop is jam-packed with junk. But unlike those "American Buffalo" sets which appear to be occupied by hoarders, it's not filthy. In fact, the shop looks fairly respectable, a reflection of its owner Don (the gifted Guinan, demonstrating once again his flair for understatement), a middle-aged businessman teetering on the edge of respectability and unafraid to dip his toe into criminality.

Don serves as a sort of mentor/father figure to teenage junkie Bobby, the terrifically versatile Andrews who appears to fold in on himself. Fresh from his star-turn as the emcee in Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre's "Cabaret," Andrews does a 180 here. Evoking both pity and exasperation, he more than holds his own opposite Guinan and Letts. Don also plays the ersatz parent to Teach (writer/actor Letts, whose performance marks his return to the stage following his 2008 Pulitzer Prize for "August: Osage County"). Don's been taken - by a yuppie no less - who paid $95 for a buffalo nickel Don suspects is worth much more. To recoup his loss, Don arranges with Bobby to steal back the coin. Insinuating himself into the plot is Teach, the all-swagger, no-substance, polyester and faux leather-wearing loser with nothing to back up his bravado.

Morton's production is meat-and-potatoes Mamet: no frills and seasoned with a dash of pathos to underscore the play's bitter humor and jagged edge.

A hint of menace accompanies Letts' spot-on display of desperation and frustration. I've said it before and I'll say it again: No actor conveys a metaphoric punch to the gut more convincingly than Letts. The penultimate scene in which his character's rage gives way to self-awareness is absolutely gripping and entirely believable.

Last but not least, there is Guinan. An actor who makes an enormous impact with little fanfare, his display of compassion at the play's conclusion infuses into "American Buffalo" a tenderness I've rarely witnessed in a Mamet play and one I won't soon forget.