Whenever a Broadway play comes to town packing a Pulitzer and a Tony, the big question everyone wants answered is: How good is it, really?
Tracy Letts' August: Osage County nabbed both the Pulitzer and Tony awards for best play in 2008, and arrived at the Ordway this week with the closest thing the theater world has to a "satisfaction guaranteed" seal of approval. As such, August: Osage County is pretty much critic-proof. After all, the critics have already spoken and the awards have been handed out. What else is there to say?
Well, if you want to feel the way I feel today, reflecting on my Osage experience last night, watch Dances with Wolves again and see how it holds up. Kevin Costner's epic won seven Academy awards in 1990, including Best Picture—but I guarantee that if you watch it today, you will cringe. The acting is laughable, the clichés rampant, the sensibility dated. It's an awful movie; one that, for a brief time, everyone loved.
Now, August: Osage County is a much better play than Dances with Wolves was a movie, but I suspect it will not be quite as impressive in twenty years. Sure, the acting is top-notch, the set is wonderful, and the directing laudable. And if you go, I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy the play. But the reason you will enjoy it is not because it's such amazing theater; you will enjoy August: Osage County because it is so familiar, so accessible, so . . . conventional . . . that it's almost impossible not to like.
At its core, August: Osage County is a story you've seen too many times to count: someone dies, the extended relatives gather for a few days of mourning, fights inevitably break out, ugly secrets are revealed, and everyone goes home bruised but chastened, their lives forever altered by an unforgettable encounter with THE TRUTH. Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller—they all used versions of this same basic scenario to delight and amuse the American public. The kindest thing I can say about Tracy Letts' take on this time-honored theme is: at least he stole from the best.
Okay, another kind thing I can say is that within the tired genre of funeral/family-feud plays, August: Osage County is quite good. It's got all the right ingredients to be a "classic" American play: the crazy psycho-mother, the bizarre aunt, the dopey uncle, the three disaffected sisters, the fiancé no one approves of, divorce, drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, incest, suicide, racism, sexism, violence. It's even got the dinner scene that goes horribly wrong, with pie.
It's also got Estelle Parsons, who plays Violet Weston (the crazy psycho-mother). Better known as Roseanne's television mother, Parsons' Violet doesn't know how to shrink; she's a grand and merciless bitch, and it is wonderful to watch her dish out the abuse. And I'll concede that the ensemble is first rate. The hardest part about naturalist family dramas (besides paying thirteen actors) is making them feel natural and real. The Weston clan feels like it's been fighting for fifty years, and that’s the illusion audiences want to see, because the surrealism of everyday life is what we all can relate to. The fun of watching a play like August: Osage County is a comforting form of schadenfreude: My family may be messed up, but not as messed up as those people!
What could be more American? So open a fresh bottle of scotch, pop a few pills, bring on the dysfunction, pile on the abuse—and enjoy. But check back in twenty years. My guess is time will not be kind to this play, even if audiences are.
August: Osage County continues at the Ordway Center through March 21, 651-224-4222.
Pictured above, L to R: Shannon Cochran, Jeff Still, Estelle Parsons.
Photo Credit: Robert Saferstein