The Steppenwolf Production moved to the McCarter Theatre at Princeton where, after a performance, David Sauer was questioned by Carrie Hughes and the audience about the play in performance.
American Buffalo McCarter Theatre/Steppenwolf production 3/14/10
MCCARTER THEATRE CENTER
EMILY MANN TIMOTHY J. SHIELDS
Artistic Director / Resident Playwright Managing Director
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of
Patrick Andrews, John Judd, Tracy Letts
set design Kevin Depinet costume design Nan Cibula-Jenkins lighting design Pat Collins original music and sound design Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen fight choreographer Rick Sordelet dialect coach Cecilie O’Reilly production stage manager Christine D. Freeburg
producing director director of production
The Scene: Don’s Resale Shop. A junkshop. The Time: One Friday in the mid 70s. Act I takes place in the morning. Act II starts around 11:00 that night.
There will be one 15-minute intermission.
Carrie Hughes, literary manager of the McCarter, began a question and answer session with me after the first weekend’s Sunday performance with the question of text vs. performance because the play does not read as much of anything. But seeing it performed is quite different.
There are a number of answers to explain that. One is that in great actors’ hands, Mamet’s words jump off the page with astounding spoken rhythms delivering infinitely more punch than the words on the page. An audience member likened it to the score of a symphony which is rather inert until put into full performance. The interaction of the actors as well reveals a dynamism to these words—Mamet usually writes for just two actors especially in his early works; sometimes three at the most. For a young playwright this is the best way to grow and the duologue keeps the intensity building as the conflict is directly between two characters.
In American Buffalo the exits of Bobby were the strangest, to me, most awkward because designer Kevin Depinet put the entrance down a huge flight of stairs upstage literally, so that exits and entrances were extended over time and space. This magnified to me in a way I’d never appreciated the number of times Bobby is sent away so that Teach and Don can talk together. The first time, it is because the diner forgot to include Don’s coffee. A brilliant excuse to get a character off stage. But since the plotting all revolves around betraying Bobby behind his back, it makes perfect sense to do this. It allows Mamet, in his early development as a playwright where he could only do two person scenes (Duck Variations and Lakeboat feature a series of two people talking, and Sexual Perversity is 34 scenes only two of which include three characters).
Another key point that one person in the audience raised is that a possible reason Mamet’s plays don’t work as well on film is that they are often, like American Buffalo, written for a single set in Aristotelian Unities so that intensity is also conveyed by the concentration of space and time. The burglary must be done tonight, time is ticking, and staying in one basement (in this production) junk shop also builds intensity (Oleanna, Glengarry Glenn Ross, Speed-the-Plow, Cryptogram, Boston Marriage, November and Race all similarly are on unit sets in a concentrated amount of time). The single room play doesn’t translate into film without opening out the action, and this usually diffuses the concentrated intensity.
Two or three others in the audience had seen the 1977 Duvall performance directed by Ulu Grosbard. Andrew Harris in Broadway Bound argues that the director persuaded Mamet to make some changes in the text to give more prominence to Teach’s role for Duvall and it was so much a star turn that when Pacino revived it the play was so much a star turn that the other actors faded in significance according to some reviewers. In Macy’s production the balance was somewhat restored by making Teach more of a lightweight, but I still had the feeling of Don, Philip Baker Hall as more of a ponderous presence. He seemed always to sit behind the counter stage right while Macy roamed the rest of the stage. Here, despite the replacement of the original Steppenwolf’s Don, company member Kurt Ehrmann was an active presence, moving more than anyone else in the play it seemed, and the movement restored his visual prominence to the role of Don as the organizer, the brains of the operation, the controller of the action. This, in turn, despite Letts’ greater physical presence, as bigger, more aggressive, potentially more intimidating, made him ultimately subservient to Donny with whom he most wants to please and work with in accord. Indeed a number of early reversals take place as Teach tries to take control of the operation, and must back away and defer to Donny, most notably over including Fletcher against which Letts rampages and roars but ultimately backs down.
What those who had seen the earlier productions in New York noted was that this production featured much more sympathy for all three characters. And concerning the ending when Teach wrecks the store one audience member asked the key question: why does Don then say he’s not mad at Teach for doing this? Anyone else would be furious. It showed how different this production was: all three characters were so sympathetic that this final forgiveness made sense. Teach broke down at the end, crying helplessly in his devastation after wrecking the store, and was clearly in need of consolation. Another observed that this was simply Don’s acknowledgement that this was the way Teach is—he knew him and accepted him for what kind of a person he is. His sensitivity to Teach was reflected in this production when he earlier showed both concern and recognition that Teach was acting unusually: “You ain’t been to sleep since the game?” And later, you have too much coffee maybe? ??? Several times Teach asks “You mad at me?” and this production heightened those lines, underscoring the nature of the feelings, the family sense that this production had. In interviews on the Steppenwolf website they depicted Bobby vs. Teach as Cain and Abel, ultimate sibling rivalry for the safe place with Don. The greatest moments of Don’s fury came whenever Teach alluded to Bobby’s former drug addiction and this performance thus highlighted Don’s desire to defend Bobby from such charges.
In this production Mamet’s signature dramatic device seemed to me to play a more prominent role than I ever would have imagined from reading: the telephone. The opening of act two came with incredible energy from both actors, Don and Teach, Don moving about more frantically, always back to the phone, at his stand up counter, anger and fury mounting as he’s unable to reach Fletcher and slams down the phone. He greets Teach with anger because he too was late and the moment for the “thing” seems to be slipping away. Teach also paces around, and when he sat his leg kept shaking up and down full of nervous energy, while Don is just angrier and angrier with Fletch and he takes it out on the phone.
The best comic moment came during this scene with the phone when Teach suggests they call the guy to make sure he’s not home. It got funnier and funnier as Don seems impressed with the idea, and Teach insists that this is real planning. But when he tells Donny how to do it, it got confused, so he took the phone away and explained what he would say how not to arouse suspicions if someone answered. But when he grabs the phone to carry this out, he dials the wrong number that he says he would pretend he was dialing, but someone does indeed answer and he is totally flummoxed. The Pauses of the script here became sputterings as he can’t remember what he was going to say and bungles the entire call to great audience delight.
Best Question from Audience perhaps leads to the best explanation of performance vs. reading: Is this play’s significance simply that it was Mamet’s first full length play, a historically significant work but not terribly important on its own, for itself? The questioner had seen Tracy Letts in the recent Steppenwolf Glengarry Glen Ross and said that work’s import was clear, there was more of a plot, clear twists, and important speeches by characters. I’d been arguing that in one sense the words don't count in this play—characters aren’t articulate and if you go to the play looking for meaning statements you won’t find them. So the logical follow up was, then is there any meaning to this play?
My answer, and this is where the through-line for the review/entire production must go, is that this play is, according to Mamet, a classical, Aristotelian tragedy. But that has never been evident to me until this production. And this time it was abundantly clear.
What makes a classical tragedy according to Aristotle is a conclusion with Suffering, Recognition and Reversal, and all three must be present in the best of tragedies. In Aristotle’s paradigmatic Tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus discovers that his wife is actually his mother, scratches out his own eyes with her broach, and is sent into exile away from Thebes and his children. Here Oedipus comes to suffering, reversal and recognition.
Mamet’s argument was that this is true of Donny in American Buffalo. Through listening to Teach he has betrayed Bobby, assumed that Bobby betrayed them, and condoned the brutal beating of Bobby. The problem with Mamet’s interpretation has always been the imbalance of the play—Donny is a minor character; Teach is the main character.
But in this production, for the first time that I can remember ever hearing or seeing this ending, Teach collapses in the one easy chair on stage and weeps uncontrollably. It was an incredibly moving moment because the ending was so supercharged with emotion for all of them. It began, however, with a recognition and reversal first of Bobby, the one character who most clearly suffered as his ear is bleeding, and he finally confesses: “I got to tell you what a fuck I am.” And when it dawns in Donny what he’s saying, that he made up the story of “the guy” who was supposed to be out of his apartment for the weekend with a suitcase, Bobby can barely confess what he’s done: “I eat shit” (three times 101, 102).
Similarly Teach first tries to present himself as the victim here, but finally takes responsibility on himself:
I hock my fucking watch . . .
I go out there. I’m out there every day.
There is nothing out there.
I fuck myself. (103-4)
Throughout this entire speech Letts sobbed uncontrollably. The concluding line is the one that presents Teach’s reversal, instead of blaming the world, or seeing himself as sacrificing himself for Don, he seems to realize his own fault: “I fuck myself.”
Subsequently, again this time with the most bizarre exit imaginable, Teach puts on the ridiculous hat and must leave to get the car, or rather to give Don and Bob the stage alone. Here, again, is a recognition and reversal. But the whole stage picture has done something reading could never do—almost like a pieta, Don holds Bobby, whose ear is bleeding him, consoling him throughout Teach’s long exit, and the love shown physically is mirrored in their recognition – each blaming himself, in a recognition, for what happened and apologizing to the other.
DON. Bob. I’m sorry.
DON. I’m sorry.
BOB. I fucked up.
DON. No. You did real good.
DON. Yeah. You did real good.
BOB. Thank you
DON. That’s all right.
BOB. I’m sorry, Donny.
DON. That’s all right. (106)
What Amy Morton’s production did with these three concluding moments was to make clear the tragedy occurs to and for all three characters. It is not the shattering experience of Oedipus, it is true, but all three come to the same recognition as Oedipus, though expressed in the demotic language of the streets, ‘I fucked myself’, ‘I eat shit.’ And further, much further as Aristotle (for whom tragedy did not have to end unhappily) this play ends with the double apology of Bobby and Donny, and their love reaffirmed in an eloquent stage picture.
In terms of plot the play most resembles Pinter’s early plays in which, most often, an outsider comes in to attempt to usurp the place of security, as Teach tries to do by pushing out Bobby to be Don’s best friend and cohort. In The Room, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, and The Homecoming especially that kind of plot animated the tragic stories of exclusion. In Mamet’s first effort at a full length play, he uses that structure but takes it further, not ending with the exclusion tragically, but rather with a recognition by all the characters of their failures which led to the break down of the small society of Don’s Junk Shop.
Further demonstrating the Aristotelian nature of this tragedy, there are a series of hidden lines of probability which Aristotle contending were key to the structure. The last is revealed when Teach admits that he hocked his watch. The line is hardly significant in itself, but it reveals a whole mindset and motive which the play, in retrospect, has hidden. He came in cursing Ruthie and continues to do so. But the reason for this is clear: he lost everything in the previous night’s poker game—to her. He’s so broke he must pawn his watch which he had worn in the first act. He has nothing. That’s why he’s trying to push his way into the burglary—he desperately needs the money.
A similar revelation comes from Bob just before Teach, when after being beaten bloody he confesses he bought the nickel he gave Don—for $50 from a coin dealer, essentially as an act of love—a gift because Don seemed so upset over the sale of his own nickel. Bobby’s loving nature has similarly not been revealed until this moment. In this production, the revelation of Don’s reciprocation of Bob’s love is revealed only in the finale when he tells Bobby “You did real good” even though it is hard to know what good Bob did. He missed the guy, made up a story to make Donny happy (the actor had the slyest grin I’ve ever seen—eyes never up at the other’s face, but when he pleased Donny he had a secret pleasure of his own), and pretended that he hadn’t bought the coin from a dealer. But still Don loves him, tells him he did good, and apologizes to him for not trusting him, and accepting Teach’s “poisonous” world view.
Teach’s view is that everyone else steals, lies and cheats. Ruthie cheats at cards; so does Fletcher. That’s why they both won, not because they outplayed Teach. Seeing the world this way, when Bobby shows up with the nickel, Teach assumes that he got it by doing “the job” before he got to do it, probably with Fletcher. This reflects his whole world view. He assumes that Bobby is covering for Fletcher and making up the story of Fletch being beaten by Mexicans. Everyone is out to cheat him. It is that “poison” he gave Donny, and Donny accepted and so encouraged the beating of Bobby to get the truth out of him. And again there is the irony that Don relied so much on superman Fletch, but in fact he’s a failure too.
So much is buried in a kind of subtext, never expressed. But this is the first production I’ve seen, perhaps contrary to Mamet’s wishes to let the play speak for itself, to reveal these motives in the character’s movements and actions throughout the production, from start to finish. But in accord with Mamet’s unique and previously unsupported reading, the play is revealed to be a tragedy: From the New Theatre Quarterly 4.13 (1988) Interview: “I always want everyone to be sympathetic to all the characters. […] Reunion is a play about the family. American Buffalo, sneakily enough, is really a tragedy about life in the family—so that is really the play that is closest to Death of a Salesman, though it’s something I only realized afterward. Formally, the two are very closely tied” (p. 65, David Mamet in Conversation).
For Wonderful Production notes from the Steppenwolf Company, see: http://www.steppenwolf.org/watchlisten/backstage/archive.aspx