AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Deborah recently asked about the play August: Osage County, so now that I've finally written up some productions that are on the verge of closing I suppose it's a perfect time to turn to this much-lauded play by Tracy Letts, which promises to run for a decent stretch past Tony season.
August: Osage County, a three-act play that basically portrays a dysfunctional family, received some extremely positive reviews, including raves from Charles Isherwood of The New York Times, who called it "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years." Then came the cavalcade of awards, including the Pulitzer and many Tony honors. But if you listen closely enough, you might hear some less enthusiastic appraisals amidst the chorus of praise. Friends of BAT have left the theater wondering "What's the big deal?" or gasping, "We couldn't believe how hammy it was!"
My feelings: The play is good and substantial, though not nearly as swell as you might think from all those honors. As has been noted in the Times and elsewhere, the family drama is rich with strains of Eugene O'Neill and Sam Shepard, among others. These are so apparent that one might suspect that the playwright said things like, "Okay, this is my O'Neill section" when working on the script. Even the play's characters recognize when they're playing out a truth-telling or secret-revealing scene.
I don't really have complaints about this type of grafting—and it was great to hear virtually the entire audience gasping together at the appropriate moments—but based on my one viewing of the play my main concern is that Letts just seems to stop at the hommagelevel. He doesn't seem to add much more, which leaves me feeling that the play, while accomplished, doesn't go far enough beyond evocation of the masters to announce the playwright as a master in his own right. So I'm actually less enthusiastic thinking about what Letts has accomplished with August: Osage County than I am about what he might do next. (And I do wonder whether this play is just one in a planned series of play, perhaps arranged by months.)
Something that did impress me about this production was how well it played to the rafters. When The Other Dave and I came to our half-price seats, located three rows from the back of the theater and quite far from the stage, we were downcast at the prospect of spending a few hours straining to hear what the actors were saying. But we were pleasantly surprised to find that nearly every word was intelligible where we were perched. And though I can understand why some attendees felt that the widely lauded star Deanna Dunagan did go over-the-top in imbuing her character with the characteristics of a venomous snake, I can attest that the characterization, while less than subtle, came through clearly in the nosebleed section. That is a sign of a top-notch and considerate technical production—and it's the kind of thing that helps many audience members leave the theater feeling that they've gotten their money's worth. In contrast, I can think of at least two recent productions that fell short of that level. As mentioned previously, the sound produced by the musicians in Sunday in the Park with George was too strong for many audience members in the upper level. And in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Top Girls, many lines were hard to discern in the upper level. (And I'm not just talking about the overlapping dialogue.) Critics including Ben Brantley of The New York Times liked Top Girls, but I think audience reaction would have been much more favorable if the words had been easier to follow.