Seen Tuesday evening August 26, 2008, 7:30 PM at the Music Box Theatre. 1.5 slithy toads.
This play won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Variety loved it
The NY Times loved it with the current cast. And with the old cast.
Do they have a category for Best Dysfunctional Family Drama?
I think the best thing about the play might be the set. It's a three-story house, living room and dining room and den at the front of the bottom floor, marked off by pieces of furniture, with a kitchen lurking in the background and the driveway and front door and porch hinted at off to one side. A flight of stairs leads up to a 2nd floor with a couple of bedrooms, and then another staircase to a third floor with another bedroom tucked under the gables. It's a very very big house, and a very very tall house. Most of the time a play might have a really big living room and not much else going on, and maybe there's a turntable or some other scenery trick to give other rooms, but it's not often the case that you see a house with such immense verticality to it.
My admiration for the set does not extend to the lighting design. There were times when I couldn't figure out how the light we were seeing beyond the third floor windows was matching with what time of day it was supposed to be and the variety of light playing on the exterior of this very big very tall house. Was the house so tall that the third floor was in a different time zone than the bottom floor?
In a good play, maybe I wouldn't have time to ponder so much on the lighting design, but this is not a good play.
The play, which is named for the county in Oklahoma in which it is set, starts out with the patriarch interviewing a 20-something Cherokee college-age type for some kind of job with the family. I'm not entirely sure what her job was. If it was clearly defined during the interview, I didn't catch it between the patriarch's meditations on Tennessee Williams, or it got lost because the lady had her back turned to me making it harder to hear her soft-spoken dialogue. Nor could you really tell what her job was by watching the rest of the play. She isn't seen much. She hangs out in her room on the third floor reading.
Right after this, the patriarch disappears and goes missing, and his wife calls the police. The wife is one of those pill-popping dysfunctional matriarchs, and of course the sheriff has history with the family, in this case a prom date with one of the daughters. When patriarch is found dead the whole family returns, and we meet more daughters, their husbands, an attractive male cousin who is having a thing with one of the daughters that shouldn't trouble us (doesn't trouble the characters) because she had a hysterectomy so they can't do the kinds of things that lead to taboos against first cousins being too close with one another. The primary daughter has an estranged husband who shows up. There's a granddaughter around. There are plenty of dark secrets hanging around, darker even than that first cousin thing. The first act sets the stage. The second act has people preparing for a big dinner followed by the dinner itself at which some secrets will start to reveal. And then the final act will have more secrets come tumbling out followed by the ramifications thereof.
But there's one major problem with the play, which is that none of these characters are very likeable. I'm giving the play only a moderately low rating because it's well enough written that I wasn't looking at my watch all that often, other than in the first half of the third act, and it's got a bit of humor and some actual zing, but when I don't care about anyone on stage I'm not sure why I want to spend three hours with them. And the dysfunction seems forced. When I'm evaluating a novel by one of my clients, I'm often willing to give my most generous suspension of disbelief with regard to the starting points of the characters, and then those points being accepted will go where the characters themselves feel the need to go. But in August, I kept seeing the playwright Tracy Letts reaching down from on high (from very high on high, considering how tall the house is) to add a new revelation or a new twist or a new bit of nastiness. Hence, I liked the lead-up to the big dinner at the end of Act 2, because it was set against the background of doing what characters would do in these circumstances. But the dinner scene itself left me flat, because it becomes a canvas on which to paint people doing things that people won't do. The third act wore out its welcome at the start because it builds on that dinner scene, which means it put more odd-looking bricks on top of a foundation of odd-looking bricks. There's some real drama in the final stretch of the third act as the characters confront look at these bricks and react to them, but I still think of the bricks and not the people looking at them.
At the very end, the denoument of August Osage County is not dissimilar to the ending of the film Hud, a classic directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman which I finally caught up with al fresco in Bryant Park. That had an ending which was tragic on many levels for several of the characters, but the only tragedy at the end of this was that I felt "goodbye and good riddance" to all of the characters as they made their sorry way off the stage. I've had far drearier evenings at the theatre than this; I can't emphasize enough how nice it was to have a 3-hour-plus play that entailed only minimum looking at watch. But I can't recommend this.