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Monday, November 05, 2007

 

In Previews: August: Osage County

August: Osage County
Where: Imperial Theatre, Broadway, NYC
Director: Anna Shapiro
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Performers: Ian Barford, Deanna Dunagan, Kimberly Guerrero, Francis Guinan, Brian Kerwin, Dennis Letts, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, Rondi Reed, Troy West
Opens: November 20
Visit: Official Site, IBDB, Telecharge, You Tube

I am sometimes asked by readers why I still go to see plays on Broadway. It's a fair question: on these pages, I'm intensely critical of the commercialism, the dumbing-down, and the meek artistry that predominates America's preeminent home for theatre these days. Broadway is, with few exceptions, a show palace of spectacle, a temple worshipping the lowest common denominator. Why do I still put myself through the Legally Blondes and Farnsworth Inventions, especially when the work Off- and Off-Off Broadway is often so much better?

The answer is, of course...that's I'm waiting. I'm waiting for the 1 show out of a 100 that knocks it out of the park, that shatters me with its genius. I'm waiting to be blown away, to be carried to another universe, to be transported by the awesome power of great art. I'm waiting for magic...a specific magic that, so far in my life, only happens when the house lights go to half. The promise of something spectacular. That's why I still go.

And out of the hundreds and hundreds of nights spent seeing crap, the magic happens about once a year. Twice, if I'm lucky. But it's been a really, really long time since the magic happened with an American play.

Sure, musicals can dazzle and delight (Spring Awakening, the Sweeney Todd revival), and European writers have been on a serious roll of late: McDonagh (The Pillowman), Bennett (The History Boys), and Stoppard (Arcadia) have all taken me to the heights of ecstasy in recent seasons. But American playwrights have been in a slump for far too long.

It's not been a total loss, of course. In the last decade, there have been a few good American plays on Broadway: Shanley's Doubt is one, David Auburn's Proof another. But they're not spectacular. They aren't magic. And what's more, they are surrounded by middling, mediocre work. The new generation of Broadway scribes -- David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) -- write decorously but not dramatically, as if silver spoons still dangled from their overprivileged Caucasian mouths. The only person of color ever invited to the Broadway party who was asked to stay, August Wilson (Radio Golf), has died far too early. And the remaining old guard are embarrassing themselves with shoddy, substandard work...as anyone who has seen recent output from McNally, Simon, or Albee know all too well.

In the last year, there have been signs of promise. Two American women, Theresa Rebeck (Mauritius) and Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House) have had solid efforts, the first for female writers on Broadway since the days of Wasserstein and Norman. And one can take heart that, occasionally, artists like Mary Zimmerman, Suzan-Lori Parks, and the poets of Def Poetry Jam have been honored and welcomed (briefly) on the Great White Way.

But the truth of it is this: there hasn't been a spectacular American play -- a drama to rival the best of O'Neill, Williams, and Miller -- in the last 15 years, since Tony Kushner gave the world Angels in America.

Until now, that is.

Tracy Letts has been a fixture in the theatre scenes of Chicago and Off-Broadway, where he had serious successes with the violently gripping Killer Joe and Bug, which ran for well over a year. He's been noticed by the Pulitzer committee, who named his play The Man From Nebraska as a semi-finalist a few years back. But now Letts has turned the full force of his abilities loose on a sprawling, 3 1/2-hour magnum opus about the peculiarities of American family dysfunction, and in the process has immediately become the most important new dramatist of his generation. Hyperbole? One evening spent with the Westons of Oklahoma in the staggering, powerful new work August: Osage County, and you'll realize why I am foaming at the mouth with joy.

Rarely has one play packed so much into its running time; its richly-drawn characters and surprising storylines are so densely satisfying and so rapturously written, it feels like you're eating a sumptuous 12-course meal. Brutally funny even as its rakes its fingernails across the family generations, August: Osage County explores decades of repressed secrets that come out, first in small droplets, then in torrential downpours. When the patriarch of the family, Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts) goes missing for days, his three daughters and their significant others return to the family home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma to be with their scabrous, pill-popping mother, Violet (Deanna Dunagan). The daughters left town for a reason, and well, let's just say that Violet's never really forgiven them for leaving.

Letts' command of language is sublime, allowing the easy cadence of rural America to infuse the context and traditions of this family...exposing their facades and foibles in the process. The cast -- almost all of whom were in the original, sold-out run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company -- features no movie stars and few recognizable names (Brian Kerwin, of Torch Song Trilogy fame, is as famous as its gets), but are nevertheless giving some of the most electrifying performances on any Broadway stage. Especially powerful are Amy Morton (8 MM) as eldest sister Barbara, who turns Violet's seething psychosis in on itself, and Rondi Reed (The Astronaut's Wife) as Violet's blowsy sister, Mattie Fae. But for my money, the night belongs to the magnificent, malevolent Deanna Dunagan as Violet, whose frail frame and addled demeanor belie a dragon's fire when provoked. Violet is a role not unlike the great women characters of earlier eras, echoing Mary Tyrone and Blanche DuBois in particular. Dunagan is as close to flawless as any performer I've ever seen. The season isn't even half over, but I'd be fine with handing her the Tony Award right now.

Reading back over what I've written here, I'm concerned that my zeal and enthusiasm may oversell August: Osage County, which is, after all, just a family drama about perpetually broken souls. But for anyone who has been waiting for American playwriting to make a resurgence on Broadway, to capture the imagination of audiences again...it's hard for me not to shout from the rooftops that this is the play for you. Book tickets now; the play opens November 20th, and will only play to February. (It has to close, because Billy Elliot's already booked the theatre for later in 2008.) Truly, this is a magic moment...one you don't want to miss.

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2 Comments:

Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

as rare as such magic may be this doesn't surprise me. BUG was one of the tippity-top things I've seen in a decade of NY theatrgoing.

I tried to sell some visiting friends on this one just a day ago and they opted for Mary Poppins instead. Ah, tourism.

11/5/07, 8:37 AM  
Anonymous ephemerist said...

I just saw this on Saturday and couldn't agree more with your praise. This is hands down one of the best plays I have seen in ages. And yes, book tickets in advance of the reviews. Because it's going to be impossible to get a seat once the critics review it.

11/5/07, 10:23 PM  

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