Coming out of the vital Chicago theater scene — made even more so by playwright David Mamet and his contemporaries — the Broadway premiere of Mamet’s “American Buffalo” in 1977 shook up the theater community. His terse, rough language permeated with “street talk” made a lasting impact on acting styles and playwriting. The story of the play, set in a junk shop, centers on a plan by three “low lifes” to steal a valuable coin collection from someone who cheated the shop owner over a valuable nickel.
A new production of “American Buffalo” from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago is in previews at McCarter Theater and will open on Friday, March 12. The production runs through Sunday, March 28.
Amy Morton, who directs this production, talked with me before going to the day’s rehearsal in Chicago. Two days later they would regroup in Princeton for more rehearsals before the opening. One might think: not a play for a woman to direct. But this is in fact the second Mamet play that Morton has directed. In 2002 she directed his “Glengarry Glen Ross” — about conniving, desperate, and greedy real estate salesmen — for the Steppenwolf Theater, as well as a number of dark plays by Irishmen Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh.
She says she finds Mamet’s work “fascinating, very cryptic in an interesting way.” As for the barrage of unprintable expletives in his dialogue, she suggests, “You have to be willing to go along for that ride; he is writing the language of the Chicago streets.”
Morton has come to directing rather recently in her theater career. Best known for her acting on stage and being an integral part of the Steppenwolf “family” from its beginnings, she made her Broadway debut playing Nurse Ratchet in the Steppenwolf-originated revival of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2001. Considering the formidability of that character, one has a clue as to why Morton has no problem directing strong, rough dramas.
And she played the strong and tough but droll, take-charge daughter in “August: Osage County,” another Steppenwolf gift to Broadway that won every award there is in the business, including the Pulitzer, when it lit up the 2008 season. She was in the original cast, received a 2008 Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, and stayed to play through three different mamas-from-hell. “The change of playing with different mothers was fun,” she says. “It’s enjoyable to shake it up a bit and great to see that no matter who does it, the play still holds up. Everybody has a different take on the character, and each is valid.”
She also premiered in the London cast. And next fall, most of the original cast will head to Australia for more “August.” Tracy Letts, who wrote “August,” also does double duty: he plays the bombastic petty thief Teach in Morton’s “American Buffalo.”
“‘August’ was a career-changing experience,” Morton says. “I loved it, but it’s very hard to do that play for so long — actually, exhausting.” Also, she is married to Rob Milburn, a composer and sound designer busy elsewhere at other theaters, and it was hard being separated for such long periods. He would fly in for a few weekends, but will be with her in Princeton as he is on the production staff for her “American Buffalo.”
She is pleased now with the chance to do both in her career: act and direct, feeling that they inform each other. “I like to mix it up, acting and directing. I’d be very sad if I had to pick just one. It’s like great crop rotation. One helps me with the other. Directing is very difficult because you have to keep your eyes on so many different things, and it requires very intense concentration. When I’m acting now, I understand better and am grateful that I only have to concentrate on one track for my character, but directing has helped me look at the whole of the play.”
Her high visibility acting in “August,” for which she garnered a Tony nomination for best supporting actress, contributed to movie offers. She plays George Clooney’s sister in the current “Up in the Air.” “I play his sorta wise-cracking sister. A fun part. Sardonic. Not that dissimilar to the character I played in ‘August: Osage County’ — another dysfunctional family.” She also felt comfortable with the Midwest setting where the movie was shot, declaring it, “homish.”
“I like making movies, but I haven’t done enough to feel supremely comfortable on camera. I’m so used to theater and going from beginning, to middle, to end and having a live audience. Film is a very different animal. But the more I do it, the more I like it. ‘Up in the Air’ was especially fun to do.” Of course I had to ask her about George Clooney, and I was relieved to hear her glowing review: “He’s just as good looking in person, if not more so. He’s very generous, a down to earth, funny man. I really, really liked him.” Some of her other film appearances include “8MM,” “Rookie of the Year,” and “Falling Down.”
She is a mid-westerner at heart, born in Oak Park, Illinois. Deciding very early that she wanted to be an actress, she wasn’t inspired by something she saw, but by something she did. Her mother signed her up for a summer drama class “to give me something to do, and I really loved it. From then on, I knew that I wanted to be an actress.” Her father is a producer and director of documentaries and commercials. Morton has three sisters, none involved in theater, but there are three nieces who have caught the theater bug.
Morton went to college for a year. “I’m sort of a big drop out; I kind of ran out of money.” She started taking acting classes and working in Chicago. She trained with the St. Nicholas Theater Company, which was founded by William H. Macy, Steven Schachter, and David Mamet. “I met Mamet several times; so I was weaned on Mamet at a very young age.”
When she was around 20, she began a 15-year association with the Remains Theater Company, also in Chicago. Then in 1997 she joined the ensemble at Steppenwolf where she has appeared in more than 30 productions. There are a number of personnel crossovers from these Chicago companies to provide the theater world with a very rich heritage. Morton will teach at Steppenwolf this summer before taking off with the “August: Osage County” cast for Australia.
Over the years, the Steppenwolf Theater family has not only enriched the New York and Princeton theater scenes with its productions and itsother talented women directors (Mary Zimmerman and Tina Landau are two), their shows have traveled to theaters across America. Productions under Morton’s direction have gone to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the Alley Theater, Dallas Theater Center, and Hartford Stage, and have been highlighted at festivals in Dublin and Toronto.
That triumph, “August: Osage County,” was directed by a woman, Anna D. Shapiro, who won the Tony. Morton agrees with me that somehow it has been easier for women to make the move to directing in Chicago than on the East Coast. Good for Chicago.
American Buffalo, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, March 10 and 11. Opens Friday, March 12. Runs through Sunday, March 28. David Mamet drama stars Tracy Letts, who wrote “August: Osage County.” Directed by Amy Morton. note: Mamet’s sparse, streetwise languages is legendary for its abundance of profanity.$15 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.