It’s no surprise that “August: Osage County” playwright Tracy Letts’ current theatrical endeavor involves salty language throughout and a bloody bashing toward the end. But in this case, Letts actually does the bashing, performing in a Steppenwolf production of David Mamet’s 1975 play, “American Buffalo,” with the same sense of uninhibited showmanship that informs his writing.
Letts has obviously made an awfully big splash on the national, and even international, scene as a playwright. But outside Chicago, fewer people may be aware he’s a stage performer of the highest caliber. There’s something remarkably satisfying about watching him do Mamet.
And, playing the bombastic petty thief Teach, Letts seriously does Mamet, not just speaking Mamet’s dialogue, but fondling it with a palpable sense of affection for its poetic rhythms. Even more importantly, he animates the language, always keeping us keenly aware of the distance between the character’s blustery, angry behavior and the motivating insecurity beneath.
All bravado and little skill, Letts’ Teach looks like a guy who dreams of being a porn star. Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins dresses him in full ’70s regalia, with his pants tight, his belt buckle big and his flashy polyester shirt consciously unbuttoned at the top. He even puts on his sunglasses every once in a while, which is particularly amusing since set designer Kevin Depinet has cleverly situated this fully realized Chicago junkshop in a basement that barely sees a glimmer of natural light from the door at the top of the stairs.
Letts’ bravado matches his get-up, as Teach wheedles himself into the half-baked plan by junkshop owner Don (Francis Guinan) to steal a coin collection after selling a buffalo nickel for what he believes was an unjust sum.
Guinan, who like Letts is a Steppenwolf ensemble member, brings quiet, nuanced naturalism to “American Buffalo.” It’s a genuinely interesting interpretation of the role, as his Don keeps doing things he clearly doesn’t really want to do. In particular, he lets Teach talk his way into the deal, usurping the role of loyal but pathetic junky Bob (Patrick Andrews, an up-and-coming Chicago talent who shows true range here).
The production, directed by “August: Osage County” star Amy Morton (also onscreen in “Up in the Air”), is excellent in all its components, but not yet ideal as a whole. Guinan and Andrews are both admirably honest and completely believable, but perhaps too emotionally reserved in comparison to Letts’ larger-than-life low-life.
Guinan’s Don is a bit too non-malevolent. His relationship with Bob doesn’t yet reveal the necessary complex combination of affection and disappointment that would give the dynamics between them greater emotional heft at the end, when Teach becomes convinced Bob has betrayed them.
We should probably be more focused on Don and Bob here, as Don feels the weight of his own responsibility for Bob’s injury. But our attention goes to Teach upstage, whimpering with self-pity. In this production, Teach gets to be both the natural disaster and the victim.