Monday, December 14, 2009

American Buffalo (The SOB Review)

American Buffalo (The SOB Review) – Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, Illinois

***1/2 (out of ****)

Admittedly, playwright David Mamet’s works are an acquired taste. But having acquired that taste long ago, I found Amy Morton’s retro-cool revival of his American Buffalo a veritable feast.

Not every actor possesses the required panache to effectively deliver Mamet’s rat-a-tat-tat, back-and-forth give and take. American Buffalo certainly has its share of the playwright’s coarse trademark language. It requires absolute, unmistakable precision in order to succeed. Make no mistake, this Steppenwolf production succeeds in spades.

Fortunately in this tale of amateurs planning a heist of one very expensive nickel, Morton is directing a trio of genuine pros. Steppenwolf ensemble members Francis Guinan as Don and Tracy Letts as Teach are both in prime (and even primal) form, while relative newcomer Patrick Andrews more than holds his own as the dim Bob.

From 2001-2007, you almost could not see a Steppenwolf production without witnessing Letts’ personal metamorphoses, losing himself completely in each dramatically different role. Despite a two and a half year absence from being on stage, Letts never misses a beat and brilliantly masters Mamet’s rat-a-tat-tat banter. He finds all the subtle shadings of this most shady character -- enough, that you can’t help but feel a twinge of regret for Teach during his pivotal moment of truth in the second act.

These days at Steppenwolf, it’s Guinan who’s in practically every Steppenwolf production. Like Letts, this exceptional ensemble player lends such an amazing air of authenticity, including here, that you can practically smell him from your seat. No wonder Guinan has been Steppenwolf’s go-to-guy in recent years. He’s just that great.

In his first Steppenwolf role -- which is unlikely to be is last -- young Andrews goes toe-to-toe with Letts and Guinan. He delivers his own nuanced performance that’s a revelation.

While American Buffalo is strictly a three-hander, another star of the production is Kevin Depinet’s ingenious scenic design, perfectly capturing Don’s junk dealer shop. And you have to give props to the prop master, for without those perfectly placed props, watching Letts’ second act meltdown certainly would not have had the same visceral punch. Letts doesn’t so much as chew the scenery as much as he begins to physically destroy some of it.

Regrettably, I have no idea how well-acted the recent Broadway revival of Mamet’s play was just two short years ago, missing it due to its premature closing. But after devouring every last, tasty morsel of Steppenwolf’s American Buffalo with relish, it’s hard to imagine any other version being more satisfying.

This one is worth every pretty penny.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminate against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I have received nothing of value in exchange for this post. I paid my own way for this performance.

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