Thursday, December 20, 2007

"August: Osage County"

In the years I have been doing these reports on my New York trips -- and especially the last four, when I began blogging them -- I have focused less on trying to write full reviews, and more on creating capsule reports to give you a flavor for the show and the information you need to decide for yourself whether you'd like to see the production.

Last night's production, however, was so rich, so multi-layered and so complex that any attempt on my part to make sense of it in a few hundred words is patently ridiculous. Apart from the fact that I lack the deep theatrical background (there's just too much of the classic theatrical canon I have never seen or read) to construct such a criticism, I'd need to see "August: Osage County" at least twice more to even begin to plumb the depths of familial relationships Tracy Letts has created in this landmark new play that many critics are predicting may become an American classic, standing proudly beside the best work of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.

So let me just say this: go. Even if you can't make it to Broadway before this closes (which, unfortunately, will be sometime before September, when "Billy Elliot: The Musical" takes over the stage of the Imperial Theatre), see it when it comes to wherever you are.

It's not an uplifting evening: the family in question has myriad problems. Dad is a once-honored, now-failed poet who drinks. A lot. Mom pops pretty much anything that comes in pill form. Their three daughters are mostly estranged from each other (and their husbands and children) -- but they all come together when dad goes missing after the first scene.

Unlike Beckett or Pinter, where much of the real action happens in subtext, little is hidden here. All the vitriol is on full public display. All the nasty things one might think about a family member who has let you down or disappointed you or failed (in your mind) to take adequate account of your needs are spoken out loud here. Nothing is held back. (And in fact, reaches its peak when the eldest daughter tells mom to "Eat the fish, bitch.") At one point, four (I think -- might have been five) groups of family are in four different spaces of the big old house (in Todd Rosenthal's multi-tiered set), conducting four different simultaneous arguments. It's a fugue of dysfunction.

Fortunately, there's also quite a lot of humor happening here. (Plus the comforting fact that almost anyone can experience "August: Osage County" and say, "at least my family's not THAT bad.") It's a good sign, I think, that the producers have chosen to sell t-shirts featuring some of the show's best lines: "You have to be smart to be complicated." "All women look better with makeup." It gives you a sense that the show has plenty of good ones. And it does. Here are just a few of the many great lines that didn't make the t-shirt cut:

- "Do me the favor of knowing when I'm demeaning you."
- "Thank god we can't see the future -- we'd never get out of bed."
- "You never know when someone might need a kidney."
- "We fucked over the Indians for THIS?" (referring to Oklahoma)

And of course, the aforementioned "Eat the fish, bitch."

Over the course of three acts (and three hours), the story builds and gets more complex and more tragic, revealing surprises to almost the very last scene.

If you can go, "August: Osage County" is not to be missed.


Tommy Jordan said...

sir, stumbled across your blog thanks to i like your stuff.

i saw august last night. i wasn't as taken with it as you were, but i dig your report. however, the line "eat the fish, bitch" is a work of genius.

see the seafarer if you are still in the city and have a chance. helluva show.

Esther said...

Great reviews! I totally agree with you on the brilliance of "August." It's emotional and funny and so true to life. I think Tracy Letts writes especially well for women. He really captures the "sandwich" generation in Amy Morton's character. My favorite bit of dialogue is: "What made them the Greatest Generation? Because they were poor and hated the Nazis? Everybody hated the f*@#ing Nazis!" Perfectly captures the generational divide!

Anonymous said...

This may not amount to more than a coincidental footnote to the discussion about "August: Osage County", but just prior to the play's opening at Steppenwolf in Chicago, I had the opportunity as the writer of an independent film to work with both Tracy Letts and Deanna Dunagan on a few scenes from the film. Deanna plays Muff Greene, the head of editorial for a failing newspaper, and Tracy plays Jack Derringer, the paper's publisher. Jim True-Frost fills out the cast as Danny Fain, a reporter who decides to turn a tragedy into a news story for his own benefit.

If you have an interest in viewing the footage, it's available on director Scott Smith's site for Fulton Market Films.

To access the excerpt, go to, click on the DIRECTORS link on the home page, then SCOTT SMITH. Choose FEATURE FILM EXCERPT - "INK" to view 12 minutes from the feature film.

Just thought this was something you might find interesting.

Thanks for your time.

Eric Anderson