When the playwright-actor Tracy Letts and his longtime muse Amy Morton officially ignite George and Martha's famous Fun and Games in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" here this weekend , it will mark the first time a play by Edward Albee has appeared on the stage of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
"Not for lack of trying. Not for lack of trying," said Martha Lavey, the famously feisty Chicago's company's artistic director. "We approached Mr. Albee about this play many times."
"I think," said Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "August: Osage County," in a separate interview last week outside the rehearsal room where "Woolf" was being wrought, "that Mr. Albee was probably aware of Steppenwolf in its early days, with its reputation as a wild, rock 'n' roll kind of theater and thought, 'Well, that's great, but not with one of my plays.'"
Sitting in that same rehearsal room the following day, Albee acknowledged the impasse and made reference to "Steppenwolf once wanting to do something naughty" with one of his plays. "But I can only hold a grudge," the famously irascible playwright said, "for no more than 25 years."
There would seem to be several causes for the great Albee-Steppenwolf thaw of 2010 — not least Steppenwolf's decision to hire Pam MacKinnon, who is very high on Albee's very short list of preferred American directors of his work and also the unusual presence of a fellow playwright in a leading role, one of the few playwrights whom Albee actually admires.
Albee saw "August" — which he described as a "beautifully written, gold-solid, naturalistic play" — on Broadway. And when Letts received an award in May 2008 (one of many the Pulitzer Prize-winning play received) from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, Albee showed up to make the introduction. Letts says he was moved by Albee's presence. "I told a story," Letts recalled, "about my being a little kid at home in Oklahoma with my father's copy of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' and playing George."
Unbeknownst to many, Letts has long been an actor as well as a playwright — if you include the upcoming run at the Arena Stage in Washington, he'll be playing Albee's George for most of the next six months. He just spent about the same amount of time playing the petty tyrant Teach in the 2009 Steppenwolf production of David Mamet's "American Buffalo," which went on to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N. J., and featured Letts raging in polyester.
During all of that time, many people in Hollywood have been trying to get Letts to write. Or, at least, adapt something of their choosing. Ever since "August" opened at Steppenwolf in 2007 (with Morton in the starring role of Barbara Weston) and went on to Broadway, London's National Theatre and a national U.S. tour, Letts has been one of the country's most sought-after scribblers.
Before he took on Teach, Letts turned in the screenplay of "August," to which Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts (playing the role originated by Morton) are now reportedly attached. Mostly between Teach and George, and at the behest of Natalie Portman, he completed a screenplay called "The Fabulous Fraudulent Life of Jocelyn & Ed," an adaptation of a Rolling Stone article about a pair of wealthy college students who fund their lavish lifestyle through identity theft. The piece is in development at Warner Bros. He's also been tinkering with his screenplay to his play "Killer Joe," which William Friedkin is currently filming.
But Letts says he's done with the lure of Hollywood adaptations of other people's work. "I am getting better at saying no," he said. "A lot of people came out of the woodwork and said we'd love you to write this for us. So why wouldn't they want me to write something original? "
He says he is at ease in only two professional situations — writing original plays, preferably for Steppenwolf, and acting in plays, preferably at Steppenwolf.
"The rehearsal room really is the only place I am comfortable or socially at ease," Letts said. "One of the differences between the movie business and the theater is that movie business is very social. You always have to smile and shake hands. In the movie business, it's always the first day of school. Over time, I have gotten better, but truly I am not comfortable. In the theater, you can be off in a room as your own weird self. There is acceptance in the theater that everybody is like that."
Letts is, in many ways, an unusual casting choice for George. A big man with a commanding and frequently relentless on-stage presence, he is a seemingly different type from a precise and clipped actor such as Bill Irwin (who played opposite Turner in Anthony Page's 2005 Broadway revival).
"There is something about George's insecurities, his verbosity, his sense of humor," Letts says, wryly, deftly catching one of his own paradoxes, "that makes a certain kind of sense to me."