30 June 2009

'August: Osage County'

On Friday, 19 June, my visiting friend Helen and I went up to Broadway to see Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County at the Music Box, where the play moved (from the Imperial) in April '08. (The play closed on Sunday, 28 June, after over two-and-a-half years on Broadway, but it's going on tour with Estelle Parsons as the matriarch, Violet Weston. She took over the part from Deanna Dunnigan, the original lead from Steppenwolf, and then Phylicia Rashad, whom I saw, took over on 26 May.) AOC won many awards here--I'm sure it won many more in Chicago as well--and it is unquestionably an epic piece of theater, running nearly three-and-a-half hours with two intermissions (how many plays have two intermissions anymore?), with a cast of 13 characters, but it has serious dramaturgical problems as far as I'm concerned. (I guess I'm just a curmudgeon. Too bad!)

AOC is an old-fashioned play, recalling such family dramas as Little Foxes, Glass Menagerie, Mourning Becomes Electra, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and many others that date from the '60s and earlier. It shares themes with many of those plays and its characters are drawn in ways that reminded me of some of the people in them, too. Dramaturgically, AOC also looks a lot like those oldies. These similarities and resemblances aren't faults, mind you, but the playwriting on display here is less a post-modern look at a family coming apart at the seams, a 21st-century take on a perpetual situation in this country (and, I daresay, most others as well), as a throw-back to a tried-and-true method of examining family dynamics. Stanislavsky would feel right at home with this script, I'm sure. Take out all the cursing and adult language, color it black-and-white, and it'd make a fine '30/'40s movie with the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Kate Hepburn, and other screen stars of the era. (Okay, the Breen Office would have real problems with some of the topics, but let's overlook that for the time being, shall we?) This is not a complaint, of course. I love those old-time plays and I see no reason a contemporary playwright can't draw on the styles of the past if they suit his needs. Theatrically speaking, I'm a pragmatist: Go with what works. I'm not even above a little artistic theft, short of outright plagiarism, here and there if it's useful.

Letts was an actor before he turned to playwriting a few years ago, and he still is. (This is his first Broadway transfer, I believe, though he's had some Off-Broadway successes as well as hits in Chicago, particularly at Steppenwolf where he's a member. He has a new play coming to Broadway soon.) Like many actors-turned-writers, Letts writes terrific roles for actors. He obviously knows what actors like to do on stage, what they can get their teeth into--especially the actors he's worked with on both sides of the footlights at Steppenwolf, for whom AOC was written. Without detracting from the work of director Anna D. Shapiro (who herself won a Tony for this effort), the cast of AOC knocks the ball out of the park in this play--and the cast I saw included many replacements of the original Steppenwolf company that came here with the play. Letts has created 13 separate characters, each with at least one moment to shine on stage, and the actors all developed clearly delineated personalities that were believable within the world Letts had created for them. (We all know that the families in these multi-generational dramas are . . . well, eccentric is the kind way to put it. They're not like you and me. At least I hope not.)

Speaking of the world of the play, I have to note here the environment that set designer Todd Rosenthal created for Letts's characters to inhabit. The three-story house from which the front wall had been sliced away was at once defining and confining. (I was a little confused by the configuration of the ground-floor rooms--I didn't know where the interior "walls" were supposed to be, but that wasn't terribly distracting or damaging.) Though we knew from the dialogue that the characters, especially the daughters, have lives elsewhere, the house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is the world they all inhabited together. At one time, they did so literally; now they do it emotionally and psychologically. (That's not an unfamiliar device in old-time dramaturgy, either--the family home to which everyone returns for some momentous event. Think, for instance, of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or All My Sons.) Rosenthal's representation of this homestead evoked both the past history the Westons all shared here and the claustrophobia the place exudes. We could look in through the missing wall, but the Westons are boxed in when they are inside that house. It wasn't even open to the sky--Rosenthal roofed the top floor to be sure. A pressure-cooker might be a good analogy. (The costuming and lighting, by Ana Kuzmanic and Ann G. Wrightson respectively, enhanced the effectiveness of the world Letts's imagined without calling attention to themselves.)

Before Rashad, I believe the newest cast member was Elizabeth Ashley, who had joined the family as Violet's sister Mattie Fae in February. John Cullum (who I mentioned in my report on Heroes hightailed it from the Music Box, where he had recently started his performances as Beverly Weston, the patriarch, over to Theatre Row to appear in the French comedy) had been in the play for months by this time. So only Rashad was really new to her part, and she displayed some tentativeness here and there, but not detrimentally. At worst, she was a little superficial, maybe a little glib in her line readings, as if she were trying to get through the scene without screwing up. Helen remarked the actress was "playing to the audience," and maybe that's what was happening. Violet's big moments, her emotional explosions, were mostly solid and right-on, and I suspect that he had more rehearsal for those--and the one really huge scene when everyone in the family was on stage together eating the fateful dinner that's the centerpiece of the Letts's drama. She was probably still finding her bearings in the other scenes, having been performing the role for less than a month with a cast that had been doing it for up to three years or more in some cases. (Some members of the cast were still the Steppenwolf actors who originated the roles in Chicago.) I won't fault her at all for some nervous moments--she's a pro, and probably only another actor would really notice anyway. (I was at first a little unsure Rashad would have the intestinal strength to pull this role off. She's not known for playing ballsy characters; her strength is different. But, given her newness to the part, I'd say she managed quite well indeed.)

Overall, I can't say anything detrimental about the production. I think it was exactly what the play called for, and it deserved all the accolades and recognition it got. (It's perfect material for film, by the way--or, really, a TV movie if it weren't for the language, I guess--and it would surprise me if that doesn't come to pass in a few years.) I'm not thrilled with the three-hour-plus length: that's a very long time to sit, but that's a small quibble, I guess. But, as I said, there are problems in my opinion, and they're in the playwriting. For all its strengths and dramatic impact (it's really a melodrama, I think), AOC is weakened in the end by one tactic Letts uses all through the script. I don't know if this is a writing habit of his, as I haven't seen any of his previous plays, but it does strike me as the practice of a relatively novice dramatist. He drops bombs. That's what one of my acting teachers used to call it when a student, in an improvised scene, throws up a dramatic fact for which there has been no preparation or forewarning: "Dear, we're having a baby!" or "I've got cancer, Mom; I've only got six months to live!" (The teacher's point in the acting class was that no actor can deal competently with such a revelation dropped into the scene unrehearsed. As a playwriting tactic, the results are a little different.) At almost every turn, at every moment when the play seems to be moving along one track to a logical conclusion, one of Letts's characters drops a bomb--reveals a new, unlooked-for fact that stirs everything up again, and we start the throughline all over again on a new trajectory. Two salient examples: After Beverly Weston has disappeared and his body turns up, the family is all gathered and the old recriminations and resentments are brought back to the surface. The youngest daughter, Ivy, reveals that she has a secret romance no one in the family knows about. We soon discover that her lover is her cousin, the son of Violet's sister and brother-in-law. That's the first bomb--Ivy is dating her first cousin. (Remember, this isn't Kentucky or Arkansas--it's Oklahoma. That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen.) Because of that and the fact that no one in the Weston family really thinks much of "Little Charles," Ivy insists her sister Barbara keep the secret, but when Ivy comes to the defense of Little Charles (these people are in their 40s, by the way), the family starts to get the idea there's something going on between them. When Mattie Fae, Little Charles's mother, asks Barbara if there’s a relationship, and Barbara acknowledges it, Mattie Fae cries out that Barbara must stop it. When Barbara hesitates, Mattie Fae reveals bomb number two: Ivy and Little Charles aren't cousins. (Can you guess now?) They're brother and sister! Mattie Fae had had a brief affair with Beverly 40-some years ago, and Little Charles was the result, though no one, not even Mattie Fae's husband, Charlie, knows. So, a whole new line of conflict now opens, and new recriminations and angry outbursts ensue . . . and we're off to the races yet again. (A third little bomb connected to this series occurs a few scenes later when Violet, who has allowed that she knows everything about all her family, reveals she knows about both Little Charles's relationship with Ivy and his parentage. She doesn't care a whole lot, but she knows.) I didn't count, but I'd guess there are a half dozen or more of these bombs and bomblets in AOC. Now, maybe Letts thought this would be an amusing tactic: whenever the play seems to be leveling off, he injects an entirely new irritant into the mix and starts things up again. (Didn't Carol Burnett do that in many of her comedy sketches?) Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy (okay, I am a fuddy-duddy . . .), but unless this is intended to be a farce, and it was meant to be a joke, I get annoyed. I'm not keen on even one plot bomb as a dramaturgical device, but when they start to proliferate, I get pissed at the writer.

And finally, perhaps the most difficult problem I had with AOC is that none of the characters, with the possible exception of Johnna Monevata, the young Native American woman Beverly hired to keep house and care for him and his aging, cancer-infected, pill-addicted wife, is at all likeable. I said of the recent Fifty Words that I wouldn't want to spend any time with that couple; the family in AOC and their circle of acquaintances multiply that seven-fold. I get a headache listening to them yell at each other all the time. It didn't strike me as at all strange that Beverly, who drinks to excess anyway, would choose first to disappear and then to drown himself in the lake. How he lasted as long as he did is a mystery to me--one I probably won't try to solve. I can easily understand why actors would want to do these roles--we do love histrionics and scenery-chewing--but I'm not at all sure why spectators would want to watch them do it.

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