(January 30, 2009) In New York City last weekend, Emsworth yielded to curiosity and went to see the heavily hyped August: Osage County, which has been on Broadway for over a year and which won the 2008 Tony.
The Music Box Theater was packed, and, frankly, it’s been a while since we’ve been part of an audience that was so into a play. But we left with just one thought on our minds:
This was really the best play on Broadway in 2008? The Tony? The Pulitzer too? Oh, my!
Don’t believe the critics. August: Osage County is what you’d get if you took six months of a daytime soap, boiled it down to three hours, and added laugh lines.
The soap formula calls for new dramatic revelations — infidelities, betrayals, crimes of passion — every two or three weeks. That’s August: Osage County: fresh dark secrets about the Weston family, only they bubble up about every fifteen or twenty minutes. Playwright Tracy Letts exhausted his quota of coincidences and unlikely plot turns by the first intermission.
We learn in the first ten minutes of the play that the folksy Bev Weston is an alcoholic and that his bitchy wife Violet pops pills. But that’s just the beginning.
In short order we learn that their eldest daughter Barbara is separated from her husband, who’s shacking up with one of his students at a university (and that the separation is a secret from her family); that their middle daughter Ivy is secretly sleeping with her first cousin; and that their youngest daughter Karen has just gotten engaged to a shady businessman (narcotics?), who’s trying to get into the pants of Barbara’s 14-year-old daughter Jean.
Sound like six months’ worth of All My Children? That’s what I thought, too.
This play panders shamelessly to trends in pop psychology, the stuff you’d see on Oprah and read about in Cosmopolitan. America loves “truth-telling” — so Letts writes a family-dinner-from-hell scene in which a hopped-up Violet (Estelle Parsons) tells her daughters and their husbands just what she thinks of them! America can’t get enough of The Vagina Monologues — so we get pajama-clad sisters joking about their mother’s privates. American mothers live in fear that dirty old men will ply their young daughters with pot and try to seduce them — so Letts puts that in the play too! His audience, viscerally involved, hisses right on cue.
Shock overload? No such thing! Tracy Letts also throws in subplots about suicide and accidental incest. He tries to hit as many of the primal fears of American women that he can. Make no mistake: this is a chick play.
Then he adds a crowning touch: a pure-heared young Cheyenne woman with perfect posture and absolute composure (Samantha Ross). She presides over the play as a sort of spirit presence (and as a conscience for the Westons), reminding us of the moral superiority of America’s indigenous peoples. Letts’s random use of hot-button items from contemporary pop culture make August: Osage County a hopeless mish-mash of a play.
This may be the same production that won the Tony, but it’s not the same cast. All the actors from the original Steppenwolf production that came to Broadway from Chicago have long since moved on.
Still, there are some very good performances, especially from Estelle Parsons, who plays her “stoned” scenes to perfection. She also gets to shriek and carry on much as she did when she won a supporting actress Oscar forty years ago in Bonnie and Clyde. We especially liked Molly Regan as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae; this actress is a veteran of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and has serious acting chops. So does Amy Warren as Violet’s neurotic youngest daughter Karen; Ms. Warren has some marvelous moments with body language, using her arms and legs.
On the other hand, Madeleine Martin seems to feel that the best way to put across a surly 14-year-old girl (Violet’s granddaughter Jean) is to distort her voice and swallow her words. She was painful to listen to. And the way Bill Fordham delivered his lines (he plays Barbara’s philandering husband Frank) was little better than amateurish.
This is theater for people who like TV. We were entertained — we admit it. But we were not impressed.