Of all the household names that populate the Steppenwolf ensemble, it is John Mahoney who seems most interested in returning to the stage on a regular basis. And Chicago theater is clearly the better for it. Just watch as Mahoney makes his entrance in “The Dresser,” Ron Hardwood’s World War II-era backstage drama about a troupe of third-rate Shakespearean actors led by the aging “Sir” (Mahoney). It is a so-so play, but the performances are worth seeing. Standing at his dressing-room door, Mahoney is thin, drawn and tired: Will he or won’t he be able to pull it together and perform that night as the title character in “King Lear?” Tracy Letts as his dresser, Norman, works double-time prodding and goading his employer on stage. It is a long, drawn-out process, not all of it particularly absorbing. But first, the makeup must be applied, and it is here that director Amy Morton’s production achieves its best moments. Sitting at his dressing table, Sir applies the glue, then the white beard and mustache of his character, emitting a deep throaty growl, equal parts vocal warm-up and emotional psyche-up. And it is during this scene that Letts finally quiets his performance. Up to this point, his portrayal of the obviously gay Norman is saddled with about four affectations too many. But as the play progresses (and Norman continually nips from a flask of brandy), Letts finds a more solid perch as a man perceptibly drunk and loose around the mouth, infusing his eventual panic attack with just the right amount of narcissistic bile. (Nina Metz)
“The Dresser” plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, through November 14.