Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Great American Play...about everything!

Theatre Review

August: Osage County
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, is a big play by just about every measure. It's 3 acts, runs well over 3 hours and has 13 characters, all of whom have substantive stage time. After its world premiere at Steppenwolf in 2007, it went to Broadway, ran for 648 performances (remarkable for a play), won the Tony Award for Best Play, earned Letts the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and then played in London with much of Steppenwolf's (and the Broadway production's) original cast.

It is, according to Chicago Tribune Theatre Critic Chris Jones, "perhaps the most successful piece of theater to emerge from this city."

But with all its size and success, it is a still a play--and one with lots of rapid-fire, intense dialogue at that--so as it is now on its first post-Broadway national tour, going into Tuesday night's performance I was wondering how well it would work in the 2,344 seat Cadillac Palace Theatre. I had liked it very much when I saw it in Steppenwolf's 515-seat venue, but even in New York & London it played in sub 900-seat theatres, so with tickets literally in the last row of the Cadillac, I didn't know if its intensity would hold without the intimacy. (I even brought along the script in case there were lines I missed) I also wondered if I would like it as much without the Steppenwolf cast.

Well, if you've never seen it, there's nothing about the performance & production at the Cadillac that suggests you shouldn't see it now, even from nosebleed seats. Although the cast wasn't quite as pleasing as the original, it was excellent throughout, including Estelle Parsons as the matriarch of the Weston family. Parsons, an Academy Award-winner for Bonnie & Clyde, was the only holdover from the Broadway production, where she took over the role for which Deanna Dunagan won a Tony.

According to the Tribune's Jones, the central set piece of a 3-story house is a bit smaller than on Broadway, but it was still quite impressive. And while I would say that something was certainly sacrificed in terms of impact in such a large space, and I did have to check my script during the two intermissions for a few missed lines, my attention and interest was completely held for nearly 3-1/2 hours.

That in itself should qualify August: Osage County as a great play. I've seen 90-minute plays--heck, even a 50-minute one the other night--that have bored me to dreamland.

However, whereas some raves may refer to it as "The Best American Play in a..." decade, generation, etc., upon my second viewing, I believe my placement of it as the 8th best play I saw in the 00s, still feels about right. Hence, my giving it @@@@ here, not @@@@@.

In short, while August never feels long, it still has a bit too much going on. I understand that in telling the story about a dysfunctional American family in a fresh way, sharp dialogue, humor and histrionics are needed, and Letts is a master at writing all of the above. But to address substance abuse, suicide, literal & figurative familial distance, adultery, divorce, incest, pedophilia, the displacement of Native Americans and much more in the course of one play, and one family, just felt a bit implausible. Or that any of the subjects and characters might have been covered more effectively had a few of the others been left out.

Let's just say that while, given the acclaim, this will likely go down as Letts' masterpiece (and it's worth noting that Tracy Letts is giving another great acting performance right now in American Buffalo at Steppenwolf), it's not inconceivable--and to me quite desirable--that he will author something even better in the years to come.

In sum, August: Osage County, even in its touring incarnation, is a great play and completely entertaining, but clearly not the be all, end all.

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