Stages

Review: Steppenwolf Opens 2021-22 Season With Tracy Letts’ Trio of Virtual Plays Set in an Off-Kilter World

Rainn Wilson in Night Safari. Photo by Liberace Cruzuee.

Steppenwolf Theatre adds to its Steppenwolf Now series with three short plays by Tracy Letts, available virtually through October 24. These three pieces, totaling about 40 minutes, create the opening setting for Steppenwolf’s  2021/22 season and a bridge to the return of live performances and the opening of Steppenwolf’s new Arts and Education Center this fall.

Night Safari, directed by Patrick Zakem, is a filmed monologue featuring Rainn Wilson, who takes us through parts of the animal kingdom. He introduces us to the lifestyles of some little known creatures like the Panamanian Night Monkey, the Paradoxical Frog, and the Aardwolf in a funny, quirky animalogue that turns poignant at the end. (14 minutes)

Puppets at lunch in The Old Country. Photo by Sarah Hahm.

Zakem also directs The Old Country, in which two very human old-man puppets, voiced by Mike Nussbaum and William Petersen, reminisce about other meals shared and the old Russian waitresses that used to work in the diner. They consider their former lives (intellectual and sexual) and the perennial question of dessert. Karen Rodriguez voices the new waitress. The pitch-perfect puppet-size diner (puppet and production design by Grace Needlman) could be any Chicago neighborhood diner. (10 minutes)

Each of the three works is well-written and -performed, as one would expect from Pulitzer-Prize-winner Letts and Steppenwolf’s creative team. But I found the final one, The Stretch, directed by Anna Shapiro, to be the best of the three—and a gripping story.

Tracy Letts in The Stretch. Photo courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre.

Tracy Letts is the horse race announcer in The Stretch, calling the one-million-dollar El Dorado Stakes. He’s every inch the proper representative of an elite racing venue in both costume and voice. The horses are at the gate and as they begin the race, he reports on the progress of thoroughbreds named Daddy’s Little Dumpling, My Enormous Ego, Canadian Navy, Would Ya Could Ya, and Hold My Beer. At one point, “Whistling Pete has Sweet Sweet Sue all to himself … although I remind you that Whistling Pete is a gelding.” Strange things happen as the lead horses reach the finish line and it turns out to be a very long race, as well as an existential experience. The perfect crowd sound effects and Letts’ vocal styling make this monologue a thrillingly strange story. (15 minutes)

Single tickets grant access to all three virtual plays for $20. Students, teachers, artists and essential workers get access for $10. Access is free for season members. To purchase tickets, visit the website  or call Audience Services at 312-335-1650.

The first live production of the new season is the remounted Bug directed by David Cromer,. The Tracy Letts script has become a cult classic of weirdness and paranoia since it first opened in 1996. The previously sold-out, award-winning early 2020 production returns with the original cast starring ensemble members Carrie Coon (“The Leftovers” and “Fargo”) and Namir Smallwood (Pass Over on Broadway). Previews begin November 11 and the production runs through December 12 in the Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. Single tickets are on sale online or by calling Audience Services at 312-335-1650.

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