American Buffalo
American Buffalo Credit: Michael Brosilow

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
—Langston Hughes

David Mamet knows what happens to a dream deferred, and drying up like a raisin in the sun is the best-case scenario. Mamet’s 1975 play—at the time, the most significant by a Chicago-bred playwright since Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun had opened on Broadway 16 years earlier—takes place in a world of thwarted, angry white men during the downbeat days of the Ford administration, when Whip Inflation Now buttons passed for an economic strategy.

Lord knows our current economic crisis festers and stinks, so conditions on the ground are ripe for a revival—and the indispensable Amy Morton has directed a thoroughly engaging one for Steppenwolf.

Her Teach, the would-be cat burglar who can’t keep track of his own hat, is played with flawless elan by Tracy Letts, the most significant playwright to come out of Chicago since Mamet. In Letts’s August: Osage County, Barbara Weston (originally played by Morton) quotes Beverly, her dead father, saying, “This country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it’s just a shithole.” If Mamet’s scabrous portrait of lowlifes with delusions of adequacy can be taken as a metaphor for the general state of things, Beverly was generous in his assessment of the past. It’s hard to imagine Teach or his partners in crime, Donny and Bobby, succeeding at anything even with all the breaks on their side. That’s both the source of the best humor in Mamet’s often riotously funny script and also its biggest challenge: How do you get an audience to invest in characters so obviously in over their heads from the get-go?

Mamet’s great achievement with American Buffalo was to take the earnest broken-American-dream themes of Clifford Odets and Theodore Dreiser and marry them to a street-smart vernacular that sings and scats with its own odd, relentless drive. Teach, Donny, and Bobby haven’t a clue in their noggins, but they share that peculiarly American notion that they can get whatever they want if they simply want it badly enough—the same thinking that leads putatively smarter guys to buy high-risk securities.

Their harebrained scheme to relieve a Lincoln Park yuppie of his coin collection derives from a series of unsupported suppositions—that the guy must have the collection in the first place, that he must be going out of town for the weekend, that the coins must be worth a lot, that he won’t have a safe, and that if he does, he’ll have written the combination down someplace easy to find. We never see the would-be mark, which gives us some holes to fill in for ourselves. But by limiting the world of the play to the trio in Donny’s cluttered, gloomy shop—beautifully rendered by set designer Kevin Depinet, though it could use a few more Chicago-centric touches—Mamet highlights the suffocating nature of their relationships.

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.

Rail-thin and pale as a sheet, Andrews looks like he could snap in two, and his nasal, flat line readings beautifully convey a kid who lives in constant fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Morton has a strong handle on the physical and verbal dynamics the play requires. I particularly admired her choice to keep the characters from physically touching one another until near the climax. Instead, they circle and eye one another like feral dogs, occasionally barking out their hard-won but idiotic aphorisms on success, failure, and friendship.

Mamet did a better job of portraying the rigged game of American enterprise—arguably the same thing as American life—in Glengarry Glen Ross. But Morton and her cast pay it a funny, occasionally heartbreaking visit in this beefy production.