Monday, March 24, 2008


(Mother's) Day of Reckoning

By Josh R
Have you told your mother you love her lately? With Mother’s Day looming on the horizon, mass-market treacle merchants like The Hallmark Company will be looking to do a brisk business in mass-produced declarations of filial affection; even in the midst of a recession, there’s no denying the profits to be made off of love and guilt. When it comes to how people feel about their aging parents, those two particular emotions mix more smoothly than vodka and orange juice.

If you think some cozy article of stationery sugared with precious poetry will be enough to keep mom appeased for the next 12 months, I wish you the best of luck; experience has taught me that the dear old things require more attention than can be neatly tucked into a six by eight inch envelope. Now, I must state for the record that my mother is a wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary human being whom I love more dearly than anyone on the planet … but she does get cranky if I don’t call, and crankiness can lead to acting out. Leaving the nest doesn’t automatically extricate you from those apron strings, and no matter how far you roam, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. A mother will always make her presence known, one way or another. Ignore her at your own peril.

In the case of Violet Weston, the cancer-riddled, chain-smoking, pill-popping matriarch of August: Osage County, ignoring Mom isn’t really much of an option. Coming anywhere within a mile radius of her toxic force field is the equivalent of getting sucked into a tornado, and it’s perfectly understandable why the kids would choose to send a card as opposed to having to spend a minute longer than necessary in her poisonous presence. As played by the wiry, petite Deanna Dunagan, Violet has the angelic, porcelain doll-like features of Lillian Gish, the shrill crack-voice of The Beverly Hillbillies’ Granny Clampett, a pixie haircut and a deceptively charming smile; she’s adorable right up until the point when she opens her mouth. “Nothing gets by me,” she declares with an air of chipper self-satisfaction, and she ain’t just whistling Dixie; possessed of an uncanny knack for sussing out where others' Achilles heels are, she always knows exactly where to plant the knife. Even through her chemically induced haze, there’s something alive and alert in those beady little eyes, like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse — and pounce she does, usually without warning and with a deadly sense of accuracy. Certain species have been known to eat their young, but never in a fashion so gleefully sadistic; they don’t all enjoy toying with their prey to the same extent Violet does. When one of her three daughters tells her she loves her — mainly as a preemptive maneuver to shield herself from mother’s wrath — Violet murmurs “Oh, that’s sweet,” but there’s a hint of wary implacability in her voice. Letting Mom know she’s loved doesn’t really change the object of the game, which is to see how far she can push her nearest and dearest until she pushes them over the edge. The Weston family ship may be going down in flames, but Violet won’t be handing out life preserver rings to any of her imperiled brood — nasty, prankish little demon that she is, she’s taking everyone else down with her.

You see, Mom doesn’t believe in sparing people’s feelings, regardless of what the consequences may be. A self-professed lover of “truth-telling,” she’ll drag family skeletons into the open without much heed for the fallout. In Tracy Letts’ savagely funny black comedy of family dysfunction, by far the most devilishly entertaining new American play to come down the pike in many a year, there are plenty of skeletons tucked into the dark recesses of the rambling Pawhuska, Okla., house which serves as the launching pad for the Weston family fireworks. When they come flying out of the closet, in projectile Raiders of the Lost Ark fashion, it’s all too clear who’s pulling the strings. If this sounds as tortuous for an audience as it does for the onstage characters being put through the ringer, think again. Improbable as it may seem, there may be no more heartening, riotously engaging spectacle on Broadway right now than the sight of those bones in flight.

Now that I’ve showered it with superlatives, let’s pause for a mild reality check. August: Osage County, which wraps up its limited run at The Imperial Theatre on April 20 before transferring to the adjacent Music Box Theatre on April 29, is not a revolutionary work of theater, or even a particularly deep one. Even when the catalog of horrors on display pushes beyond the norm (a little incest, anyone?), it isn’t really breaking any new ground, and it doesn’t offer substantially more insight into the human condition than a particularly great episode of Tales from the Crypt. Even when it’s not particularly original, the traditions it harks back to are oldies but goodies; the playwright borrows liberally from, among others, Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman — there’s even a touch of Ibsen’s Ghosts in the mix. What makes it such a triumphant feat of entertainment is the way in which the playwright reinvigorates the tried-and-true machinery of melodrama with such brazen, jolting theatricality. August is Letts’ fourth effort as a playwright — Killer Joe and Bug having also been produced on the New York stage — and even more so than in his earlier efforts, he displays a canny understanding of how to go for the jugular without resorting to heavy-handedness. What happens onstage is harrowing — heck, a lot of it is downright unsavory — but it’s also scabrously funny. More remarkably still, Letts’ most fully realized work to date is the rare three act, three hour-plus play that positively flies by, courtesy of dialogue just as wickedly sharp as any of the verbal brickbats Albee’s George and Martha ever hurled at one another’s heads, and a crackerjack plot that twists and turns with the breakneck velocity of a hard-charging roller coaster. Like any great thrill ride, it careens violently, prompting screams of horror and delight, but such is the soundness of its engineering that there is never any danger of it going off the rails. There’s something incredibly satisfying — even life-affirming — that comes in hearing an audience of 1,400 people strong gasp in collective shock when a startling revelation comes to light, or laugh uproariously at words and behavior so appalling that no other response seems quite appropriate. When I saw the play for the second time, the gasps were blessedly still firmly in place, and the laughter was enthusiastic to the point of seeming celebratory. When theater is at its very best — and August: Osage County belongs in that category — it exists as a participatory experience. Over the course of three fleet-footed hours, August fires on all cylinders — and it takes its audience along for the ride.

What sets the ride in motion is the mysterious disappearance of Beverly Weston, the craggy, alcoholic patriarch of an extended clan that includes three daughters, one grandchild and an assortment of in-laws. A noted poet whose output didn’t extend beyond one fledgling success, Beverly has a habit of going missing without so much a heads up to his nearest and dearest (given what he has to deal with at home, it’s not hard to understand why). This time, however, his absence has an unmistakable air of finality; no one can be quite certain whether he’s alive or dead, but the likelihood of his coming back seems slim to none. One by one, the far-flung Weston children, two of whom have wisely chosen to get themselves as far away from Mom and Dad as humanly possible, descend upon the family homestead en masse to try to piece together exactly what happened to Dad, and what in hell to do about Mom, an ailing gorgon who shows no signs of becoming more manageable now that her chief antagonist has vanished without a trace. Of course, when you start digging for answers, there’s no telling what sort of horrors you may uncover; as it turns out, there are good and plenty festering away in the crypt of family secrets, and dear Violet is perfectly willing to invite them out to dance.

Violet is, naturally, a full-blown meal of a part, and Dunagan digs into it with carnivorous relish. That she does not, as one might be inclined to expect, blow everyone else off the stage and into the orchestra pit is a testament to how strong and balanced director Anna D. Shapiro’s 14-member cast is. All but two, it must be noted, are members of Chicago’s esteemed The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where the production began in the summer of 2007. When I originally saw the play back in the fall, the role of Beverly was played (beautifully) by the wry and weathered Dennis Letts, the playwright’s father; Mr. Letts died a few months into the run, and has been succeeded by Michael McGuire, a performer who captures much of the grizzled, laconic charm of the role’s originator. Sally Murphy expertly communicates the quiet resolve that informs the willful detachment of the middle child, Ivy, while as her younger sister Karen, Maryann Mayberry talks as if she’s read over a hundred self-help books and taken the wrong things from each one, mining her character’s cheerful obliviousness for well-deserved laughs. Funnier still is the bellowing, doughy-featured Rondi Reed, as the vulgar, overbearing Aunt Mattie Fae; she is well-matched with the stolidly submissive Francis Guinan as her henpecked husband, who can put up with his wife's insensitivity as long as he remains its sole object. Best of all is Amy Morton as the pragmatic, sardonic Barbara, the oldest of the Weston sisters, and the only one prepared to stand toe to toe with Mama in a knockdown, drag-out fight. The actress offers a brilliant study in rueful exasperation, and gets many of the show’s choicest comic lines, made even sharper by the hilariously deadpan spin she places on each one (looking out over the Oklahoma prairie from the front porch, she wonders “Who was the asshole who took a look at this flat, hot nothing and planted his flag? We fucked the Indians for this?”). As the sisters’ male companions — estranged husband, shady fiancé and sad sack suitor — Jeff Perry, Brian Kerwin and Ian Barford each convincingly register the discomfort and horror of having wandered into the middle of hornet’s nest. Rounding out the cast are Madeleine Martin as the 14 year-old pot-smoking granddaughter too precocious for her own good, Troy West as the town sheriff and the bearer of bad tidings, and Kimberly Guerrero as the Native American housekeeper navigating the extremes of life with the warring Westons while trying not to get caught in the crossfire.

As to which one will be the last man (or woman) standing when Violet starts doing what she does best — namely pulling people apart, limb by limb — I’m not going to give anything away…although I will say that, once she gets the ball rolling, not even Violet herself has complete control over the circuitous path it travels or who gets crushed in its wake. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who has cited Letts’ Killer Joe as one of his early influences, supplied Broadway with a monstrous maternal figure 10 years ago with The Beauty Queen of Leenane; in retrospect, the goings-on in that blood-stained mother/daughter smackdown look like a quaint form of child’s play. Even Euripides’ Medea could probably learn a few things from Violet Weston — a woman who doesn’t even have to resort to literal infanticide to reduce her offspring to rubble. "Thank God we don't know what's coming," one character observes; "we'd never get out of bed in the morning."

In a perverse sort of way, it seems somehow fitting that Broadway performance schedules have now been expanded to include Sunday matinees, meaning there will in fact be a 3 p.m. performance of August: Osage County this coming Mother’s Day. Instead of sending Mom that generic card this year, why not treat her to a deliciously warped afternoon in the company of the Westons?

Just pray to God it doesn’t give her any ideas.

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After seeing Letts' Bug, which was worse than the 1975 Bradford Dillman horror movie about bugs that got in people's ears and caught on fire, you couldn't drag me to see this play. Especially not at Broadway prices. Three hours of this?! You certainly don't make it sound appetizing. My root canal seems less painful. Geez!

Take my mother? Are you out of your fucking mind? I am envisioning her right now walking out of the theater, then shooting a Ha-Do-Ken fireball at the marquee, causing it to explode. Then she'd beat my ass with one of the marquee letters for spending all that money on something she hated. No thank you, Josh R.!
I'm not crazy about Bug - believe me when I say that August: Osage County is one of the funniest, most entertaining plays I've seen in a long, long time, and that if you miss it, you're a numbskull (there's no gore in this one, if that helps).
I like gore. Gore doesn't bother me. Playwright pretentiousness makes me want to cause gore to happen though, and Bug just reeked of it.

I guess I'll be a numbskull because this just doesn't sound appetizing enough for me to drop the money and the 3 hour investment in time. I trust you, but I'm not trusting the playwright here. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and I'ma beat yo' ass.
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