October 23, 1975
David Mamet's American Buffalo premieres
The play brings the raw intensity of Chicago theater to national attention.
The original production of American Buffalo in 1975 starred, from left, J.J. Johnston, William H. Macy and Bernard Erhard. The play brought the raw intensity of Chicago theater to national attention. (Photo courtesy Goodman Theatre)
Before "Buffalo," there had been a lively, youthful off-Loop theater scene in the city. The musical "Grease," which originated in a small Lincoln Avenue house, had gone on to become a 1972 Broadway smash, and director Bob Sickinger's pioneering Hull House Theater, established in 1963, had produced a series of cutting-edge dramas. But the power of "American Buffalo," its dynamic use of language and its vision of the underbelly of American life, boosted the city's theatrical stock beyond anything that had gone before.
Immediate reaction to the gritty drama of three petty thieves in a bungled burglary attempt was mixed. The Tribune dismissed the play as "almost two hours of bleep-rated dialogue," while the Daily News called it "a triumph for Chicago theater--and a treasure for Chicago audiences." But by the time a Broadway production of "American Buffalo" won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best American play of the 1976-77 season, Chicago was viewed as a breeding ground for hot new talent in all fields of theater.
Dozens of small theaters, encouraged and challenged by Mamet's leap to fame, planted their flags and established an energetic, hard-driving "Chicago-style" of home-grown, home-made theater. In 1975, for example, the year of "American Buffalo," a cocky young group of actors banded together in a church basement in the northern suburb of Highland Park and launched themselves as the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Within 10 years, many of these actors -- John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, John Mahoney and Laurie Metcalf among them -- had become stars of international reputation on stage, film and television.
As the years passed, the young artists who were just out of college in the 1970s grew to become the leaders of a strong, confident theater tradition. For example, Robert Falls, who made his Chicago directorial debut in 1976, was the artistic director by the 1990s of Goodman Theatre, the city's largest and oldest resident not-for-profit theater. It was a remarkable period of growth for Chicago theater artists, made possible in large part by the achievement of "American Buffalo."