First, the bad new. Chicago's Steppenwolf production of the Tracy Letts masterpiece, "August: Osage County," is three hours and 20 minutes long. The good news, however, is that when it's over, you wish it would go on for another three hours and 20 minutes.
There have been perfect plays written before -- think Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde -- but modern-day perfection has been hard to come by these past several decades. There's so much that can go wrong, and often does -- casting, acting, directing, staging, set, costumes, lighting, plot structure, character development, dialogue -- so it's no wonder that Letts' new play is creating as much noise off-stage as on. "August: Osage County" is perfection.
Chock full of drinking, pill-popping, dope-smoking, cursing, infidelity, lechery, suicide, and one good slugfest, this hilarious play is not unlike a Horton Foote offering, only it's Horton Foote squared. Letts, who wrote the chilling "Killer Joe," knows just how to put the "fun" back into "dysfunctional."
The noisy story starts slowly, with Beverly Weston, patriarch of the clan, professor and devout drunk, spouting T.S. Eliot to the Cheyenne woman he hires as a housekeeper for his drugged-out wife, Violet.
Violet, who has mouth cancer, is a vicious mama with a tongue that has been significantly loosened by all the liquor, downers and uppers she ingests like Coke and M&Ms. "My wife is cold-blooded," Beverly explains to Johnna, "and not just in a metaphorical way." Cold-blooded or not, Violet will never be Mother of the Year.
Yet the entire brood doesn't hesitate to come to her rescue when Beverly disappears and rescuing is needed. Motor-mouth Mattie Fae, Violet's sister, arrives with her husband hoping their 22-year-old loser of a son, Little Charlie, shows up (but who knows). Barbara, the eldest daughter, has husband and Jean in tow. Jean's a precocious 14-year-old who smokes pot, flaunts her newly popped breasts, and complains that mom's on "hymen patrol."
The spiritual Karen, a modern-day flower child, makes her appearance as well with new boyfriend Steve whom, she says, is as good as "making out" with her pillow. Bringing up the rear is Ivy, the middle daughter who lives with her parents and is forced to put up with Violet's constant harangue that she's unmarried because she looks like "shlub," or worse, a lesbian.
Whether she is or not, however, only Violet knows, because the fact is, Violet knows everything about this secretive, non-communicative clan. As she says, "nothing gets past me," even in her drugged stupor. By story's end, Violet reveals all the family's dirty big and little secrets, including hushed-up knowledge about her husband which devastates everyone.
The ensemble cast of this saga is enormous, yet there isn't a weak performance in the lot. In scenes that will become new audition material for aspiring actresses, Amy Morton as Barbara, and Deanna Dunagan as the manipulative Violet command the stage, casting away inhibitions like emotional pebbles. The only relationships Barbara and Violet canï¿½t seem to manage are their own, ones they stand to lose as they desperately try to save them.
Ivy and Karen, unfortunately, are by-products of this toxic environment, and they escape with whatever they can salvage of their lives. Special mention should be made of Dennis Letts, the playwright's father, who takes his son's words and creates a powerful Beverly in a brief but memorable appearance.
Set designer Todd Rosenthal has created a stunning building to contain all this misery, an open three-story house that allows us to literally see a cross-section of the family members as they move from room to room. This is one crazy family -- but with all the screaming and fighting, they're still marvelous company. Get your tickets now because the reviews are universally fabulous, and "August: Osage County" is likely to win all awards this spring.
What the press had to say.....
"Augustï¿½ 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 ï¿½ which spans three acts and more than three blissful hours ï¿½ doesnï¿½t just jump-start the fall theater season, recently stalled when the stagehands went on strike. ï¿½Augustï¿½ throws it instantaneously into high gear"
New York Times
"Letts' perspective is bracingly fresh. He lets fly so many original and diabolically funny ideas about fear, yearning and relationships that he reinvigorates the family drama and brings it up to date. While he's at it, you're laughing hysterically one minute and appalled the next as the 3 1/2 -hour play flies by."
New York Daily News
"American epic or not, it's enormously entertaining." & "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."
New York Post
"Tracy Letts' ripping, riveting new play, "August: Osage County," the new Broadway season's first must-see offering and arguably the best new American play since Albee's "The Goat." & "He's crafted a grand, multigenerational, train wreck that's practically Greek in its scale and its pitch-black emotional color, yet he's given it all the irresistible zing of domestic comedy - albeit of a particularly rueful hue."
"Who needs highfalutin' playwriting when audiences can savor instead one big, fat, juicy whopper of a family showdown dripping with rage and oozing with scandal like "August: Osage County"? Ferociously performed by a 13-member Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble in all their head-banging glory, Letts' high-carb bourgeois dish is garnished with plenty of nasty laughs. The show clocks in at well over three hours -- with two intermissions -- but few viewers will be checking the time." & "By no means great literature, but it's certainly a crowd-pleasing epic sure to be a great, big hit."
"wild and wonderful new play." & "Among the enormous pleasures of "August: Osage County," one of the most exciting new plays in years, are the largeness of Letts' vision and his uncanny ear for the way people express themselves." & "The cast, almost without exception, is so good you want to celebrate the ensemble rather than individual performers." Robert Feldberg
"Packed with unforgettable characters and dozens of quotable lines, it is as harrowing a new work as Broadway has offered in years and the funniest in even longer."
New York Sun
"Tracy Letts' riveting dissection of one Oklahoma clan's bleak, brutal descent into disintegration. The savagery displayed by these folks, particularly the matriarch, is venomous, with no relative spared. But don't be put off by the rancour. Their fights are often incredibly funny. That gives you some idea of the gutsy scope of Letts' astonishing creation." & "one thing is clear. "August: Osage County" has introduced a major playwright to Broadway."
"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."