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picture - August: Osage CountyTheater Review

by John Topping

published December 5, 2007


August: Osage County

now playing on Broadway at the Imperial Theater

through March 9, 2008


It would not be fair to say that, without qualification, “August: Osage County” is the best new play to hit Broadway in decades, or that it is from the most original voice of our time.  Edward Albee, for example, is still writing with razor-sharp brilliance; and Martin McDonagh has written some of the most original and powerful plays of the 90s and 00s.  Yet Tracy Letts’s new play gives us something that people of my generation (i.e., not alive and/or living in New York during the glory days of Broadway) have never had before, and that the people who were lucky enough to live during those glory days have not seen in decades: a deliciously absorbing new American three-act drama that is as close to greatness as – and stands shoulder to shoulder with – any revival of an American three-act drama I’ve ever seen, in a production that is as close to a perfect theatrical experience as you’re ever likely to have.  And as Americans who truly respect and care about theater, we can almost weepingly embrace it and proudly boast that this one is ours, and that what seemed like a futile hope that truly original magnificence would someday return to Broadway has, at least for the moment, arrived.


Letts has been writing excellent plays for years, but this is his Broadway debut.  You may not have ever heard of the hilarious and disturbing “Killer Joe,” but it has been performed in 15 countries in 12 different languages.  A few seasons ago, New Yorkers were privileged to see “Bug,” his unnerving study of isolation and paranoia, in a long-running Off Broadway production (please forget the William Friedkin film with Ashley Judd).  And his play “The Man From Nebraska” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 (and … ahem … New York is still waiting to see it).


“August: Osage County” takes place in the familiar Letts backdrop of semi-rural Oklahoma.  Beverly Weston, the patriarch of the family, has hired a local Native American woman to take over the responsibilities of upkeep and maintenance of the house where he and his wife, Violet – now a prescription pill addict – raised their three daughters.  Two of those three daughters high-tailed it to other states at their first opportunity as grown-ups, leaving the third behind to a lifetime sentence of babysitting their mom, but now they are all back in the old house (kept so hot that it could kill a parakeet, and with the shades duct-taped shut to help cut down on any differentiation between night and day) with a husband, fiancée, child, aunt, uncle and cousin in tow.  The event:  Beverly has gone missing, and is eventually found dead;  the cause of death: probably suicide, but officially drowning.


Such is the dramatic device for getting the entire family under one roof and stuck with each other until after the funeral.  From there they alternately fight over long-unresolved issues and struggle to connect and become closer with the brief amount of time they have together.  Everyone is dominated by the monster matriarch – fully capable of being mean when merely sober, then crazy and unreasonable to boot when her latest cocktail of pills kicks in.  Although Deanna Dunagan will get most of the attention for this demanding role (it is already difficult to imagine anyone else getting the Tony for best actress this season), it is an absolutely superior ensemble cast.  Almost without exception, Letts has created full-blooded, living, breathing characters.  We know their history, we know their relationships to each other, and we even feel that we know them personally. 


The sounds of a full house of relatives are authentic, and although one could argue that the play sometimes heads in soap-operatic directions, there is nonetheless never a false note from moment to moment.  No small amount of credit is due to Anna D. Shapiro’s pitch-perfect direction.  It also helps that the Steppenwolf Theater cast has already had a successful run in the company’s native town of Chicago; the actors have lived in their characters for a long time, so this production arrives fully formed.  Chicago was no out-of-town tryout, where producers were sweating to iron out the kinks before arriving in New York; rather, it was so good it almost had no choice but to go on to Broadway.


Knowing that it was in the Imperial Theater, I was worried that the stage would be too big for the play to fill.  But the beautiful set design by Todd Rosenthal utilizes it well, looking almost like a doll’s house, from the bottom floor to the tip of the attic.  And even though it all takes place in one house within a few weeks’ time, the emotional landscape is epic.  If I had any complaint, it was only that the light cues were a little distracting - although it's hard to distinguish whether it was part of Ann G. Wrightson’s otherwise beautiful lighting design or if someone was being trained in the light booth.


Oh, yeah, about those three acts; a little history lesson: plays used to regularly be in three acts.  Today, in the age of the 90 minute intermissionless play, revivals of three act plays more often than not get squeezed into two acts (sometimes with artistically disastrous results).  Part of the grand sweep of the experience of “August: Osage County” is that it connects in tone and essence to the history of greatness in dramatic theater, yet it is completely contemporary and speaks to our time, practically holding a beacon up to the blighted Broadway landscape.  This is not merely highly recommended, it is an absolute must for anyone who considers themselves a serious theatergoer (any critic who dismisses this play should be placed squarely on your Never Trust Again list).    It will be a sad statement indeed if it does not receive the success it deserves, for it is, in many ways, the most important theatrical event of a generation.


johntopping @


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