The Waltons, they're not. The Weston clan, which last night took the first of what should be many bows in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," is the kind of family who put the diss into dysfunctional, and took the music out of "Oklahoma!"
The play is set in Pawhuska, Okla., 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, and quite a few miles more beneath common decent behavior.
Yet the Westons are certainly a fascinating bunch and, at times, if only because of their brutal honesty, oddly likable.
Any family that shouts, rants, throws plates, smokes dope and drops into unwitting incest can't be all bad. Certainly not from a dramatic point of view - and the Westons are never less than dramatic.
"August: Osage County" - which originated, like so much of the best in the American theater, from Chicago's Steppenwolf troupe - is in the grand tradition of American family shenanigans, such as Lillian Hellman's melodrama "The Little Foxes."
Some even compare it to Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," but this I think would be in length rather than depth ("August" runs three hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions).
Others will view this as O'Neill with a built-in laugh track and more naughty words than David Mamet could shake a stick at.
Still, American epic or not, it's enormously entertaining.
Set in a rambling, old three-story house (Todd Rosenthal's super-realistic set, with carefully calibrated period costumes by Ana Kuzmanic), the saga opens with the family patriarch, Beverly Weston (beautifully played by the playwright's father, Dennis Letts), a sometime poet and university lecturer turned full-time drunk, hiring a Native American housekeeper, Johnna (Kimberly Monevata).
Sipping bourbon and quoting T.S. Eliot and, more significantly, John Berryman, he explains his relationship with his wife: "My wife takes pills, and I drink . . . that's the bargain we've struck."
By the next scene, Beverly has disappeared. The entire Weston clan - three less-than-Chekhovian sisters plus their various attachments - gather to assist their mother in the family crisis and, of course, to fight.
Deadly insult is the very dialect of the Westons.
From the start, Beverly's wife, the addled but caustic Violet (Deanna Dunagan) - suffering from cancer of the mouth (physically and metaphorically) and enjoying a surfeit of prescription drugs - suggests her husband does something unprintable to an (unprintable) sow's hindquarters.
"All right," he mildly replies.
She pretty much hates her own daughters - not to mention her sister (Rondi Reed), who turns up with her own husband and son.
The three sisters hate one another, but bile is thicker than water, so they all, in their quaint way, get along.
They have their troubles. One sister, Barbara (Amy Morton), is about to be divorced and has a 14-year-old daughter who's a pothead, and maybe worse; Karen (Marian Mayberry) is engaged to a thrice-divorced child molester; and Ivy (Sally Murphy) is in love with . . . well, I'll leave you to discover with whom. But, believe me, it's not good news.
No wonder Barbara observes: "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed." But if they didn't, we'd be deprived of a lot of good dirty fun.
The immaculate staging is by Anna D. Shapiro, and the ensemble acting by the whole cast (most of whom, like Shapiro and Letts, are members of the Steppenwolf Theater Company) is simply beautiful.
"August: Osage County" would be worth seeing for the acting and staging alone. Luckily, Letts' cheerfully scabrous play doesn't make that necessary.
All happy families are alike, Tolstoy told us, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But I’d bet the farm that no family has ever been as unhappy in as many ways — and to such sensationally entertaining effect — as the Westons of “August: Osage County,” the new play by Tracy Letts that blazed open last night at the Imperial Theater.
A fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown, “August” is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Fiercely funny and bitingly sad, this turbo-charged tragicomedy — which spans three acts and more than three blissful hours — doesn’t just jump-start the fall theater season, recently stalled when the stagehands went on strike. “August” throws it instantaneously into high gear.
Mr. Letts, hitherto best known as the author of the crafty, blood-soaked genre pieces “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” somehow finds fresh sources of insight, humor and anguish in seemingly worn-to-the-stump material: the dysfunctional dynamics of the American family. In “August: Osage County” can be heard echoes of other classic dramas about the strangling grip of blood ties — from Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” — but Mr. Letts infuses his dark drama with potent energies derived from two more populist forms of American entertainment. The play has the zip and zingy humor of classic television situation comedy and the absorbing narrative propulsion of a juicy soap opera, too.
In other words, this isn’t theater-that’s-good-for-you theater. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote an immortal line from a beloved sitcom.) It’s theater that continually keeps you hooked with shocks, surprises and delights, although it has a moving, heart-sore core. Watching it is like sitting at home on a rainy night, greedily devouring two, three, four episodes of your favorite series in a row on DVR or DVD. You will leave the Imperial Theater emotionally wrung out and exhausted from laughing, but you may still find yourself hungry for more.
“August” was first staged over the summer at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. That production, with a terrific cast superbly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, has been imported virtually wholesale for the Broadway run. Among the many pleasures the show affords is the chance to see actors largely unknown in New York — perhaps, most vitally, Deanna Dunagan, who plays an evil mom to end them all — take the city by storm with the harsh humor, ferocity and keen feeling of their performances.
Ms. Dunagan is Violet Weston, the razor-tongued matriarch of a family from Pawhuska, near Tulsa. Early on in the play, Violet’s husband of more than 30 years, a poet and former professor, mysteriously — or perhaps not so mysteriously — walks off into a sultry summer night, never to be heard from again. (The exhausted paterfamilias, Beverly, played with lovely wit and rue by the playwright’s father, Dennis Letts, opens the play with a lyrical dirge assessing the state of his marriage: “My wife takes pills, and I drink,” he says. “That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”)
The couple’s three adult daughters are called back to the family homestead, husbands or boyfriends in tow, to comfort Mother in her time of need, and try to get to the bottom of Dad’s disappearance. (Todd Rosenthal designed the tiered, haunted-house set, artfully strewn with shadows by the lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson.) All three offspring exhibit clear indications of past, present or future emotional damage.
The mousy Ivy (Sally Murphy), who lives nearby and resents the responsibility she’s had to take for watching over the horror of her parents’ latter years, has never married, although she is secretly carrying on a love affair with her mousy first cousin, belittlingly known to the family as Little Charles (Ian Barford). Barbara (Amy Morton), the oldest and strongest of the daughters, well armored in savage humor, returns from Colorado with her newly estranged husband, Bill Fordham (Jeff Perry), and their sardonic, pot-smoking teenage daughter, Jean (Madeleine Martin). The youngest Weston girl, Karen (Mariann Mayberry), arrives later, from Florida, spouting self-help platitudes about her recently rehabilitated love life, and accompanied by her oily businessman fiancé, Steve (Brian Kerwin).
Surrounded though Violet is by her extended family — which also includes her abrasive sister, Mattie Fae (a howlingly funny Rondi Reed), and Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan) — she does not really seem to be a woman in great need of succor and support. Yes, she’s got cancer of the mouth. And a serious addiction to downers. She is often self-medicated to the point of incoherence, and prone to childish hysterics when crossed.
But Violet also possesses a spirit of aggression that a pro linebacker would envy, and a sixth sense for finding and exploiting the sore spots and secret hurts of everyone around her. For Violet, a child of poverty, neglect and abuse, the will to endure is inextricably tied up with the desire to fight and the need to wound. She can keep the blood in her own veins flowing only by drawing blood from others. (The play could almost be called “My Mother the Vampire.”)
And so, needlessly, pointlessly and endlessly, Violet sets about psychologically flaying her nearest and dearest, one by one, taking impotent revenge for the miseries of her life by picking at the scabs of everyone else’s.
The results are as harrowing as they are hilarious. Ms. Dunagan is simply magnificent in this fabulously meaty role. Such is the mesmerizing power of her performance that as Violet’s snake eyes scan the horizon for a fresh victim, claw-hand dragging a Winston to her grimly set mouth, you may actually find yourself sinking in your seat, irrationally praying that she doesn’t pick on you. (I was cowering myself.)
The cast does not have a weak link, and the other major female roles, in particular, are rewarding and perfectly played. (Only Ms. Martin and Mr. Kerwin, both excellent, are new to the production.) Ms. Murphy’s sad-eyed Ivy has a plaintive tenderness that occasionally flares up into a defensive assertion of the justice of her needs. Ms. Mayberry makes Karen’s drawly, long-winded narcissism oddly touching — you sense she’s still recovering from a lifetime of being talked over or ignored.
Ms. Reed flaps and squawks hilariously as the vulgar Mattie Fae, who shares with her sister a brazen heedlessness of other people’s feelings. Perhaps finest of all is Ms. Morton’s Barbara, who gradually — and frightfully — begins to metamorphose before our eyes into a boozing, brutalizing mirror image of her mother.
Alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, sexual misbehavior: The list of pathologies afflicting one or another of the Weston family is seemingly endless, and in some ways wearily familiar. But Mr. Letts’s antic recombination of soapy staples is so pop-artfully orchestrated that you never see the next curveball coming, and the play is so quotably funny I’d have a hard time winnowing favorite lines to a dozen. (Much of the “Greatest Generation” speech would definitely make the list.)
I’ll leave you with one that neatly expresses the bleak spirit of the play, which nevertheless manages to provide great pleasure by delving into deep wells of cruelty and pain. Recalling a night of youthful high spirits in sad contrast to the gruesome present, Barbara seeks to wise up her daughter to the decay of hope and happiness that often comes with the passage of time.
“Thank God we can’t tell the future,” she observes, “or we’d never get out of bed.”
In Tracy Letts' ferociously entertaining "August: Osage County," the American dysfunctional family drama comes roaring into the 21st century with eyes blazing, nostrils flaring and fangs bared, laced with corrosive humor so darkly delicious and ghastly that you're squirming in your seat even as you're doubled over laughing. Rushed to Broadway with most of its original cast intact after bowing to huge acclaim this summer at Chicago's Steppenwolf, this massive meditation on the cruel realities that often belie standard expectations of conjugal and family accord -- not to mention on the decline of American integrity itself -- confirms that, for once, the hype is justified.
Simply attempting a three-act, three-hour-plus ensemble piece with a dozen fully developed characters in this era of economical, small-cast productions and 90-minute one-acts suggests uncommon ambition. Doing so while invoking comparison with the work of America's greatest dramatists -- Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" are obvious inspirations, but there are echoes also of Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams and a dyspeptic Horton Foote -- might seem to be pushing hubris too far.
But despite being known for the gory thrills and paranoiac chills of punchy little plays like "Killer Joe" and "Bug," Letts has pulled off this bold undertaking with structural panache, propulsive dramatic momentum and acid-drenched wit that never lets up.
"Life is very long," says alcoholic poet Beverly Weston (the playwright's father, Dennis Letts) in the prologue, quoting T.S. Eliot. Sucking back Jim Beam while interviewing a Cheyenne woman named Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) for housekeeper, Beverly moves on from Eliot to quote John Berryman: "The world is gradually becoming a place where I do not care to be anymore."
The literary references serve both to locate Beverly among all the once-celebrated writers turned embittered, small-town academics, and also to illuminate the state of mind that necessitates putting his house in order. "The facts are: My wife takes pills and I drink," he explains. "And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine."
When Beverly disappears soon after without explanation, his painkiller-addicted wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan), sends out distress signals that bring the Westons' extended family back home to the Oklahoma plains. The three-story house is rendered in superb detail by designer Todd Rosenthal, with a naturalistic living/dining/office space spread out downstage and an American Gothic doll's house cutaway looming behind.
Violet has mouth cancer (described by Beverly as "the punch line"), but it's her words that are truly malignant. Having endured a childhood of emotional and physical abuse, she thinks nothing of doling out her own punishments. There's not a family crisis or bombshell revelation -- whether it's death, adultery, pedophilia or incest -- that can persuade her to soften her verbal blows for long.
Principal targets of Violet's tough-love venom are her three daughters. Menopausal Barbara (Amy Morton) is fading from hot flashes while trying to keep it quiet that husband Bill (Jeff Perry) has left her for one of his students and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Madeleine Martin) has a weed habit. Ivy (Sally Murphy) has a history of falling for losers and a reason for remaining secretive about her new love. Karen (Mariann Mayberry) has a similar string of failed relationships behind her but is convinced she's found stability with supposed dream guy Steve (Brian Kerwin).
While she's more insensitive than mean, blowsy Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed) is no less vicious than older sister Violet. Her easygoing husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) generally lets it slide; her most withering put-downs are reserved for their no-account son, Little Charles (Ian Barford).
Given that U.S. repertory acting companies have become largely a thing of the past, there are few places a work of these dimensions might have been so successfully nurtured as Steppenwolf, where artistic associate Letts has been an ensemble member since 2002, working as both actor and playwright. Director Anna D. Shapiro skillfully draws on the deep-grooved associations of a tight-knit company to add texture and collective history to the large gallery of characters.
Letts has a well-tuned ear for barbed zingers. But while the play's three acts are generously studded with quotable lines, the razor-sharp dialogue and caustic maxims are made even more enjoyable by the cast's tendency to spit out pearl after pearl with conversational ease rather than showboating bravado. Under Shapiro's firm-handed direction, this is flawless ensemble playing.
Violet may be a card-carrying bitch, but her humor and intelligence are never obscured in Dunagan's magisterially brutal performance (imagine a really pissed-off Judy Davis), exposing just enough of the fragile cracks in her dragon-lady persona to make her a human monster. She's hawk-eyed even when staggering around on a pharmaceutical cloud ("No one slips anything by me"), and her careful negotiation of the stairs or her dancing to Eric Clapton are brilliant pieces of drug-addled shtick.
There's not a weak link in the cast, but Reed wrings perhaps the juiciest black comedy out of a kind of cringe-inducing relative most folks will recognize, while Morton is simply marvelous as a strong but exasperated woman, slumping under the weight of disappointment, failure and the terrifying awareness that, in many ways, she's her mother's daughter. "At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I'm demeaning you," she hisses at Bill after getting his girlfriend's name wrong.
Letts specializes here in the wounds only families can inflict upon each other, eloquently expressing, through Ivy, the view that the bonds of blood are to some extent a myth: "a random selection of cells." The slow disintegration of that connection in families, marriages and in America as a country causes Barbara to reflect sorrowfully on the fact no one even sees it disappearing: "Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm."
Letts sets the play in a very specific landscape of desolation ("This is the Plains ... some spiritual affliction, like the Blues," says Barbara), and his construction adheres to the best dramatic potboiler tradition. Punctuated by strains of bluesy jazz, act one closes on a death, act two on a decisive shift in power, and the final act on a more prosaic but nonetheless effective note of bleak destiny.
There are terrific speeches here and sizzling confrontations, and while it can't be too long before someone snaps up this meaty material as a film property, it's hard to imagine it ever again shaped quite so masterfully as in this dynamite production.