Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Osage County-Seinfeld connection

Who knew? There two Seinfeld connections to August: Osage County.

Kimberly Guerrero plays Native American housekeeper Johnna in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production that's become a hit on Broadway. Osage County playwright Tracy Letts, pictured above, an ensemble member since 2002, also acts. Both Letts and Guerrero appeared in separate - and classic - Seinfeld episodes. One of my favorite television series and one of my favorite plays are joined together for posterity.

I found out about the first connection when I saw the play on Broadway in November. In her Playbill profile, Guerrero mentions her role in The Cigar Store Indian, an episode from Season 5 that originally aired on Dec. 9, 1993. (Guerrero told me at the stage door that she included it because she thought it was something that would resonate with New York audiences).

Guerrero also plays a Native American woman, Winona, whom Jerry is interested in. Things get off on the wrong foot when she sees Jerry give Elaine a statue of a cigar store Indian as a peace offering, and is offended. They go downhill from there, as Jerry ties his tongue in knots trying to avoid saying the wrong thing and the most innocuous remarks become verbal minefields of political incorrectness.

There are a couple of other very memorable subplots. It's the episode where Kramer comes up with his idea about a coffee table book about coffee tables, and Elaine incurs the wrath of Frank Costanza, (the always hilarious Jerry Stiller), by taking his TV Guide to read on the subway, thus breaking up his prized collection.

(As someone who looked forward every week to TV Guide arriving in the mail when I was a kid, I share his pain. I can still remember how exciting it was when the Fall Preview issue came and I found out which movies would have their television premieres that season. It was always the fattest issue of the year. It's hard to believe now, but in the days before cable and VCRs, you had two options for watching movies: see them in the theater or wait until they came on network television. And yes, there were only three channels back then. I'm not even sure PBS existed yet).

Letts has a very small part in The Strike, an episode from Season 9 that aired on Dec. 18, 1997, but it looms large in Seinfeld history. It's the "Festivus" epsiode, celebrating the holiday that Frank Costanza invented because he hated the commercial aspects of Christmas.

For the uninitiated, the Festivus celebration includes feats of strength and the Airing of Grievances. As Frank explains it, after the Festivus meal, you gather your family around the table and tell them all the ways they've disappointed you throughout the year.

Letts only has about three lines and maybe a minute of screen time. He plays a counter guy at H&H Bagels, a New York City institution, where Kramer used to work before going out on strike 12 years ago. Now that the strike is settled, he tries to get his old job back.

I found out about Letts' connection to Seinfeld in an interview with Associated Press writer Colleen Long. In the interview, Letts talks about his writing process, the genesis of August: Osage County, his work with Chicago's Steppenwolf, and about the four years he spent in Los Angeles trying to make it as an actor. (Despite his success as a playwright, he tells Long that he's primarily an actor).

Letts sounds very happy that he returned to Chicago, and as an avid admirer of August: Osage County, I am, too. I've written before about the play's humor, emotional pull and true-to-life characters, and about the amazingly talented Steppenwolf cast. It deserves all the accolades it's been getting.

"The business was brutal, and the people in the business were brutal," Letts recalls about his time in Los Angeles. "I felt, ultimately, at the end of four years my options were to hide under the bed or go out and be humiliated, so I returned to Chicago and I'm really glad I did."

He says that Chicago suits him better, and he considers Steppenwolf his home. "No matter what happens, no matter how bad I get savaged, I get to go back to Steppenwolf and go back to work, as an actor, as a writer and as an artistic director," he says. "I have a place to go and work that supports me as an artist, and that's very rare in our business."


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

As someone who's had repeated opportunities to see Tracy Letts perform on stage, I can tell you that he's one of the best actors I've seen anywhere. But who knew he was on a "Seinfeld" episode back in the day?! Thanks for sharing Esther!!

Esther said...

I'm trying to blog as much about "August: Osage County" as I can. I'm leaving no connection uncovered, no matter how distant or trivial!

I'd love to see him act. He really didn't have much to do in the Seinfeld episode. I just thought it was so funny when I read that in the interview, especially since Kimberly Guerrero was also in a Seinfeld episode. I mean, it was the last place I would ever expect to see him. And I think he said that was one of the high points of his career in L.A.

(By the way, that is him in the picture, isn't it? I checked some recent pictures, and he looks different. He's listed on the credits as the counterguy. There's another person in bagel shop, but he looks too old to be Tracy Letts).

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'm not sure if it's Tracy or not. I've only seen him in person over the past five years. I do know he's in his early 40s....

Esther said...

Thanks Steve. Just to be on the safe side, I changed the picture. I'm positive the one I have now is Tracy Letts!