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American Buffalo.

(STEPPENWOLF THEATER; 510 SEATS; $77 TOP)

CHICAGO A Steppenwolf Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by David Mamet. Directed by Amy Morton. Set, Kevin Depinet; costumes, Nan Cibula-Jenkins; lighting, Pat Collins; original music and sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Malcolm Ewen. Opened Dec. 13, 2009. Reviewed Dec. 12. Runs through Feb. 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Don     Francis Guinan
Bob     Patrick Andrews
Teach   Tracy Lefts

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 made an awfully big splash on the national, and even international, scene as a playwright. But outside Chicago, fewer people may be aware that he's a stage performer of the highest caliber. There's something remarkably satisfying about watching him do Mamet.

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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, 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 Chicago junkshop in a basement that barely sees a glimmer of natural light.

Letts' bravado matches his getup, 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 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 loyal but pathetic junkie Bob (Patrick Andrews, who shows true range here).

The production, directed by "August" star Amy Morton, is excellent in all its components but not yet ideal as a whole. Guinan and Andrews are both honest and believable but perhaps too reserved in comparison to Letts' larger-than-life lowlife.

Guinan's Don is a bit too non-malevolent. His relationship with Bob doesn't yet reveal the complex combination of affection and disappointment that would give the dynamics greater emotional heft at the end.

We should probably be more focused on Don and Bob here. 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.

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Author:Oxman, Steven
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Dec 21, 2009
Words:502
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