Tuesday, December 02, 2008

August: Osage County at the National

Apologies for the gap in blogging, but the last few days have been all things and stuff and whatnot. Last Friday however there was actually some theatre when 'Barry' and I went to see Tracy Letts' August: Osage County at the National. For the sake of thematic appropriateness, Barry had a pre-show whiskey and I, not having ready access to heavy-duty pharmaceuticals, contented myself with a large glass of merlot.

I had already read the play, having consumed it in one greedy sitting, and thought it a ripping thing, a great dark ride. But though I enjoyed the production hugely, there were certain things that didn't quite click for me – though conceivably this might have something to do with my pre-show excitement levels being so high.

Right then, here are some things that you probably know: San Francisco, Steppenwolf, Broadway, Tony Award and so forth. It premiered last summer, made the leap to New York and then it was awards all the way. And it’s long: L-O-N-G. Three acts, two intervals, three and a bit hours. Though, actually, having said that, I've been to shorter plays that have felt a hell of a lot longer.

The first act takes its time setting things up. The Weston family is a mess. Daddy drinks, mom pops pills. The marriage of the eldest daughter is falling apart. The youngest daughter is engaged to that evil dude from American Gothic so that obviously doesn't bode well. Middle daughter has stayed close to home, only to provide a source of constant frustration and disappointment to her mother. And then dad goes missing and all the various Westons come home. This slow-burn first section leads up to the most amazing central act, an incredibly funny, tightly constructed funeral dinner in which momma Weston sets about each of her family members with the paring knife that passes for her tongue. It was sublime, though Barry objected to the fact that for much of it, we were looking at the characters backs as they sit at the dinner table.

It was the third act where I thought it lost its way a little. There was just too much, revelation after revelation, and not a shred of hope. It felt excessive, even silly, almost like a (very sharply written) soap opera. The extremity of it was alienating and drained any true tragedy out of the final scenes.
The performances were however superb, Deanna Dunagan, as the tiny, pill-raddled mother, clip-clopping down the stairs in her satin pyjamas. Amy Morton was also wonderful as Barbara the eldest daughter, you could see the capacity to become like her parents written within her, despite her external show of strength.

The thing mentioned by many people who have seen the play is recognition, that they see something of themselves and their families in the Westons. I didn’t have this feeling at all, which is perhaps why I didn’t get it in the way some people have, certainly I was aware of two people weeping in the audience at the end of the play, really bawling, clearly affected on a level I was not. I enjoyed so much of this production –the performances, the Gothic dolls-house set, the line “Well, forsook you and the horse you rode in on” - but it lost its grip on me in those last scenes; it seemed a bit to keen to be saying Big Things about America. However that central sequence, that middle scene, well, that was truly wonderful: perfectly pitched, tense and deeply, darkly funny.

If you're interested, my interview with Mr Letts for musicOMH is here.


Esther said...

Hi I.D.,
I linked to your great Tracy Letts interview, btw.

I saw "August: Osage County" in New York last fall and I just found it incredibly witty and sharp and absorbing. Really the 3 1/2 hours just flew by.

I thought the performances, especially Rondi Reed, Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton, were so memorable. (I think Tracy Letts has written some great roles for women in this play. If anything, the men are a bit shortchanged.)

I don't have a family situation anywhere near the Westons, but some aspects of the story, i.e., dealing with elderly parents, certainly resonated with me. I think the play is really forceful at examining all of the pressures women face - how we're often taking care of everyone else's needs and neglecting our own and sometimes it all just gets to be too much.

Interval Drinks said...

Thanks Esther, I think the problem with this is one of hype. I really enjoyed the play, loved the way it was written, the dialogue, but the excess of the last third was too much for me. Had it not come here on a wave of praise and Tonys, it would have probably impressed me more, it's a paradox and not really the play's fault. I thought it was pretty damn good, just not as mind-blowingly amazing as some had led me to believe, but again that's always the problem with seeing something so far down the line.

I am very intrigued as to how it will work on screen though.