Tracy Letts is so polite that he warns you right away that he makes a terrible subject of a story.
"Midwestern people don't make for good interviews," says the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright and actor, who proudly makes his home in Chicago. "We're taught to hide our light, in a sense."
Thankfully, Letts is being overly polite. He turns out to be a very good interview indeed: Relaxed, quick to laugh and generous, Letts has a laconic, happily jaded way about him.
He makes fun of in-a-rush New Yorkers who jockey for position on sidewalks and the city's oh-so-chic restaurants that require him to uncomfortably fold his lanky frame so he can sit at their tiny tables.
"I bet I've lived in New York maybe two years if you add up all the time I've spent doing stuff. There's always that first flush of coming to the city: 'Oh, my God. This is the greatest place in the world!' Then I hit a wall at some point and go, 'Get me the hell out of here!'"
Letts might have to get used to those itsy-bitsy tables: He's booked to play George in an open-ended revival of Edward Albee's bruising "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" on Broadway.
Letts, a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. ensemble since 2002, burst to worldwide fame when his "August: Osage County" won the Pulitzer and five Tonys, including the best play trophy in 2008.
Because he's a stoic Midwesterner, Letts didn't lose his mind after the remarkable reception to his darkly funny story of a family forced to come together by a crisis.
"I suppose I could have bought a lot of heroin and got a big loft downtown and gone up in flames," he says with a laugh. "But it seemed to me like the thing to do was go back to what I've always done, which is writing and acting at Steppenwolf and living in Chicago. And doing so with a higher profile and certainly a greater deal of financial comfort. But it just seemed like the next thing to do. That's what I've done."
So he followed up "Osage" by writing "Superior Donuts," a sweet comedy-drama about a rundown Chicago doughnut shop's proprietor, and then started craving the stage again.
"With the success of 'August' and then 'Superior Donuts' right after that, I was a couple of years away from acting on the stage," he says. "So you start to feel some part of you — if you've done it all your life — that needs to get certain things out or expressed in a different way. And then I'll go through this for a long time and I'll go, 'I'm tired of being in front of people all the time.'"
His other plays include "Man from Nebraska," a Pulitzer finalist in 2004, "Killer Joe" and "Bug." His previous acting credits are mostly dark and tough plays, including "Betrayal," ''The Pillowman," ''Homebody/Kabul" and "Glengarry Glen Ross."
What attracts him to a role is pretty simple: "I guess it's heat and blood," he says. "It's humanity. I can admire colder experiences but I'm not drawn to them. I'm drawn to the hotter experience, especially in the theater."
Dexter Bullard, who has known Letts since 1991 and directed his play "Bug," says his friend is like his roots — relaxed and straightforward. "He is a man of immense heart and immense vision," says Bullard, who directed the play "Grace" on Broadway this season. "Tracy is like his plays — simple, direct, truthful, honest and also a little bit naughty."
Before he most recently arrived in New York, Letts visited the set where a film is being made of his "Osage" starring Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Sam Shepard.
Letts spent only one day at a table-read answering questions from the cast but called them "gifted and experienced people" and trusts his baby with director John Wells.
"As he said to me, 'You've already got the awards on your shelf. The play's out in the world. If this thing is screwed up, it's me they're going to look at,'" Letts recalls. "I give him nothing but love and support and encouragement — and I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad I'm not there."
In the Albee work, Letts is in a familiar place — starring opposite Amy Morton, who plays his wife, Martha. Letts and Morton have played a couple at least eight times and he says "you can't buy" that kind of history.
This production is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the landmark play's arrival on Broadway, and Albee himself stopped by to check out the actors before the team came to New York.
"It's pretty nerve-racking to be delivering those lines a few feet away in a well-lit rehearsal room from the guy who wrote them 50 years ago," says Letts, who refers to Albee at all times with the honorific title "Mr."
"But I know myself as a playwright that you understand that sense of dread on the part of the actors and you always want to say, 'It's OK. We're all in the same business. It's OK.'"
As for the future, a new play looms. Although he usually writes quickly, his next one is taking its time. And that's fine.
"I keep referring to it as 'The Play That No One's Going to Like,'" he says with a big laugh. "I think that's one way I continue to take pressure off myself."
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