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Reviews of Steppenwolf's American Buffalo

“Tracy Letts, actor-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright […] turned actor again. He is the best Teach I've ever seen. Actually, this is the best American Buffalo I've ever seen.” --Noted Mamet scholar Toby Zinman

American Buffalo McCarter Theatre/Steppenwolf production 3/14/10  
Toby Zinman, Mamet Scholar, comments:  “Tracy Letts, actor-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright […] turned actor again. He is the best Teach I've ever seen. Actually, this is the best American Buffalo I've ever seen.” I agree with her totally on this assessment. 
Artistic Director / Resident Playwright Managing Director
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of
directed by
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 Mara Isaacs  director of production   David York
Don............................................................Kurt Ehrmann
Bob.......................................................Patrick Andrews
Teach.............................................................Tracy Letts
OVERVIEW: Amy Morton, actor and director at Steppenwolf, has rethought the play for this new production as she did in reviving Glengarry Glen Ross. Tracy Letts, playwright and actor of the company who has worked with her often, played a much more sympathetic Teach than we’ve ever seen before; indeed, all three characters were more balanced and more sympathetic, as audience members who’d seen the earliest Broadway versions testified after the performance. Morton gave Don a more pronounced role—rather than sitting behind a counter as in most productions, he was the one on the prowl, constantly in motion, never inert so that one’s eyes were drawn to him as much as to Letts as Teach. The result was a balanced production in which all three actors starred equally—a true ensemble production reflecting Steppenwolf and Morton’s ideal. The setting, however wonderfully designed, was more realistic than Mamet’s original production, which was mostly hanging metal chairs, an abstract junk shop; here the realism was so great “you feel like this place, and the people who hang out there, could really exist” as Chris Jones observed. But if the play is ‘real’ and nothing much happens, the meaning is lost—and that was Jones’ experience. It was not mine nor was it Zinman’s. Quite the opposite—perhaps the set was designed to be over the top realistic. Certainly the long center stairway from this deep basement room up to ground level was so long as to be abstract itself, rather like the stairway to nowhere in Steppenwolf’s Buried Child. Letts’ patterned polyester shirt and pony tail were similarly a bit over the top, seemingly intentionally. Paige Leistrud makes the perceptive observation that Morton stripped the play of its pauses, and the actors rediscovered them in a more organic way. 
Cummings-Yeates, Rosalind. Centerstage Show Review. Sunday Dec 27, 2009
"Director Amy Morton pulls wonderful performances out of the entire cast, but the overall production doesn't quite provide the virtuoso effect that you'd expect from such a seminal play. This revival of "American Buffalo" shines with impressive acting that journeys through the travails of marginal characters desperately attempting to grab at riches and achievement at a time when the rules are changing and the players aren't familiar. It's a story that's been told before and that perhaps needs to be told on another, more emotional level to fully connect with today's audience."
Hall, Susan. “Mamet's American Buffalo at the Steppenwolf; Chicago Welcomes Back Its Homies.” 29 Dec. 2009
Excellent assessment of the production in
Chicago: “Steppenwolf has presented this play as the second in a series on "faith" and in a post play discussion, talk focused on the "belief" theme.  Whether Bobby's not-to-be-believed lie is the prompt for the action that follows.  All three men have a false belief that they can alter the downward trajectory of their lives which are never going to end on Chicago's gold coast, Lake Shore Drive. That's an address not far from the scruffy junk shop they inhabit. The set by Kevin Depinet is brilliantly conceived in a basement, from which the characters have to somehow escape up the stairs. It reflects the character Teach's cry "We live like cavemen. […] In this production, Bob is slow-witted, immobilized, his lines delivered in a flat, muted, staccato. He crescendos when he is pinned in a lie, but maintains the inflexible, no-affect talk […] and the young actor Patrick Andrews playing Bob is terrifyingly brittle, almost inarticulate.” […] ‘American Buffalo’ felt very now as I pondered bundled mortgages, the self-talk of the bundlers, the bought appraisals, and the con, which sure has succeeded in our time.”
Jones, Chris. “Stellar moments at Steppenwolf, but Mamet's 'American Buffalo' is showing its age.” Chicago Tribune December 14, 2009.
A not fully enthusiastic review of the play as deficient in itself, rather than in the production: “Most decent actors playing Teach can find a way to make sense of the famous moment — ideally matched to that old Steppenwolf aesthetic — when the nasty fellow smashes up his world, hurling junk, treasures and souls alike into some great slag heap of personal paranoia. But Letts also finds the other, more typically elusive, side of this angry character — the pathetically ineffectual side. Teach is no urban revolutionary, able to strike terror, consequential terror, into those he meets. He is a low-grade loser whose tantrums will never amount to anything more than self-defeating deals and schemes. Along with his director, Amy Morton, Letts gets that. He unleashes a character who wants everything, but can affect nothing. […]Thanks also to Kevin Depinet’s very clever set, you feel like this place, and the people who hang out there, could really exist […] But despite deft casting, some truly stellar moments and a wholly right-headed directorial approach to the script, the production doesn’t fully capture the gravitas, the edge, the thematic oomph, the urgency, that gave this play its essentiality in earlier years. I’ve reached the conclusion that that’s very difficult to achieve now with this script.”
Listerud, Paige. "Steppenwolf Displays Mamet Mastery."
No one would ever accuse David Mamet of being a feminist. Yet Amy Morton’s direction of American Buffalo, now onstage at Steppenwolf, so skillfully teases out the masculine value systems that both inspire and defeat the play’s characters, one might easily conceive of it as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist tract. Assistant Director Jamie Abelson, in an after-performance discussion, revealed how Morton engaged in a bit of Meisner technique during rehearsal and threw out the infamous pauses and italicized words originally written into the script—so that the cast could find organic rhythms with the words alone. Mamet’s language and its rhythms can be the bugbear of any production. But thankfully, with this well-balanced cast, each actor displays sure and deliberate internal mastery, never resorting to stereotypical staccato delivery that sometimes plagues Mamet performances. Instead, each interchange between actors is smoother, seemingly more effortless, neither delayed in pacing nor rushed in feeling. The action proceeds with quieter, subtler intensity—each incidental phrase or action naturally contributing to the play’s crescendo.
Potempa, Philip. “OFFBEAT: David Mamet's 'American Buffalo' at Steppenwolf a dark soul search.” Posted: Wednesday, January 13, 2010.
Extremely positive review of the Chicago performance. “For one more month, audiences have a chance to see his dark and disturbing creative craft back in the spotlight at Steppenwolf with a superb production of Mamet's "American Buffalo," directed by ensemble member Amy Morton, playing through Feb. 14 in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. [It] features powerful performances by ensemble members Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts, along with Patrick Andrews. [at McCarter Ehrmann replaced Guinan]. I was particularly impressed by the performance by Andrews […] But my highest praise is for Letts, who plays the worst windbag anyone would ever want to meet. Letts has a versatility that is unmatched. And in his polyester shirt, sporting a slender ponytail and puffing on a cigarette, he's exactly the kind of guy you NEVER want to sit next to on the train or airplane.“
Reid, Kerry. "The Delusions of Losers; Mamet's hard look at a hopeless pursuit of the American Dream."
"Teach gets all the showy bits (how could an actor not relish a line like "The only way to teach these people is to kill them?"), and to his immense credit, Letts doesn't try to steamroll his castmates with them. But the heart of the piece is the dysfunctional father-son dynamic between Donny and poor, smack-addled hanger-on Bobby, and Francis Guinan and Patrick Andrews play it with a mutual affection and compassion that keeps the show from feeling as manipulative and cynical as later Mamet works like Speed-the-Plow. I'd like to see Guinan's Donny assert his authority a bit more: the shop may be a shithole, but it's his shithole, and the more we sense that, the more powerful and shocking Teach's final transgressions against Donny's domain become. Still, Guinan—who projects innate decency better than any other actor in the Steppenwolf clan—anchors Donny in a way that won my sympathy by the end."
Vire, Kris. "American Buffalo." Time Out 14 Dec. 2009. Under Morton’s guidance, the tightly wrought tale of three Chicago lowlifes ineptly planning a heist reveals variegated layers beneath its famously virtuoso cussing. Scan past the well-played fucks and cunts and the increasingly meaningless clichés that comprise the false bravado of Teach (Letts as the play’s driving-without-a-steering-wheel force), and you’ll find the two most emphatically repeated concepts: loyalty and business, which Mamet seems to suggest are mutually exclusive.
Weiss, Hedy. Review of American BuffaloChicago Sun-Times 14 Dec. 2009.
"...With a little paunch encased in a garish print polyester shirt (Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ costume his priceless), and a gray ponytail and receding hairline framing a ruddy complexion, Letts looks like a repo man who lives in a single room occupany hotel. And he nails every line of misanthropic, misogynistic vituperativeness Mamet has dished out. Hate-filled and sickly hilarious, Teach is the play’s motor. And Letts is totally revved up from the word go."
Gates, Anita. “Lowlifes With a Plan (Or So They Think).” New York Times 21 March 2010: Section NJ 13
“Mr. Andrews's Bob is genuinely touching, a boy who knows he is not good enough and thinks about it every day.
Mr. Letts allows Teach's vulnerability to show as well. He becomes flustered easily and hates that he does, but after a pause he just comes up with another, equally meaningless comment, like, ''I'm not here to smother you in theory.'' Mr. Mamet's angry, rapid-fire, profane language (which he perfected in his Pulitzer Prize winner, ''Glengarry Glen Ross'') rolls off Mr. Letts's tongue like 19th-century poetry.
Mr. Mamet's sad men constantly make pronouncements about life as they understand it, hiding the fact that they really know almost nothing.
Zinman, Toby. “Mamet's 'American Buffalo' brings 3 losers to vivid life.” Philadelphia Inquirer Mar 16, 2010: D5.
Most positive review: “In this production, Teach is played by Tracy Letts, actor-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (August: Osage County; Bug; Killer Joe) turned actor again. He is the best Teach I've ever seen. Actually, this is the best American Buffalo I've ever seen. It's also the most balanced, so that Don and Bobby reveal themselves as fully fleshed-out characters, with everyone's shifts in mood and tone and rhythm intensely personalized; within minutes, we come to know each guy's characteristic gestures and emotional thresholds.”