Wednesday, December 5, 2007

August: Osage County


By Tracy Letts. Dir. Anna D. Shapiro. The Music Box Theatre. (CLOSED)

The hosannas were nearly unanimous for Tracy Letts' three-act, three-hours-plus Okie family tragedy, which swept the Tonys and snapped up a Pulitzer. Though some critics found the play too derivative and schematic, nearly all of them admitted to being fabulously entertained, hailing in particular the fierclely committed acting of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble cast (since largely replaced).

The New York Times A+
(Charles Isherwood) The most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Fiercely funny and bitingly sad, this turbo-charged tragicomedy...spans three acts and more than three blissful hours.

Variety A+
(David Rooney) In Tracy Letts' 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...For once, the hype is justified.

Associated Press A+
(Michael Kuchwara) Family battles don't get more bruising that the verbal fisticuffs on display in August: Osage County, 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.

The Daily News A+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) A hugely ambitious, highly combustible saga that will leave you reeling...[Letts] 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.

USA Today A+
(Elysa Gardner) This fusion of epic tragedy and black comedy is less a reverent foray than a bold step forward for Letts, whose earthy, distinctly contemporary wit flows throughout. Originally presented at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, his account of a family whose secrets and lies come spilling forth under duress ranks with the best American drama of the past decade.

Newsday A+
(Rob Kendt) 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.

New York Post A
(Clive Barnes) American epic or not, it's enormously entertaining...The immaculate staging is by Anna D. Shapiro, and the ensemble acting by the whole 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.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) The dysfunctional-family drama as a bulging scrapbook of misery, grudge-holding and poisoned heritage. Its three acts possess the heft and weave of lifetimes, but leavened by the author’s dark humor and fondness for pulpy, gothic flourishes. The result is a tremendous achievement in American playwriting: a tragicomic populist portrait of a tough land and its tougher people.

Chicago Tribune A
(Chris Jones) Letts has written a grand, old three-act family drama of epic scale and ambition, replete with numerous nods to Eugene O'Neill and Lillian Hellman...But even if the conflicts seem traditional, their scale, expression and intensity are not. And Letts has also penned an outrageously funny and shrewdly arch play for a generation accustomed to self-aware gothic shockers at the multiplex...It is a very good—nay, a great—modern American play, a fearless fusion of populist theatrics with caustic truths. Some might argue it's more potboiler than masterpiece. But anyone who dismisses the piece as mere pulpy entertainment is missing its determination to explore the slow death of the atrophied exurban American family.

CurtainUp A
(Elyse Sommer) The more than three hours fly by in this terrific three acter a by Tracy Letts, with its bakers' dozen of fully rounded, damaged characters portrayed by a group of the Chicago Steppenwolf Theatre Company's finest actors...Ultimately, bad news for the good news for theater goers who appreciate a well-made, well-staged, well-acted and thoroughly engaging play.

Theatermania A
(Dan Balcazo) Letts' dialogue is top-notch, showcasing a good sense of rhythm, a penchant for dark humor, and some great one-liners. More importantly, he makes all of his characters and their interactions with one another believable. They're not always likable, but nearly all of them come across as sympathetic at one point or another.

New York Sun A-
(Eric Grode) Director Anna D. Shapiro...has pieced together every component beautifully, anchored by Todd Rosenthal's suffocatingly cozy three-story set...These 11 characters splinter off, circle one another warily, and regroup before gathering for what may be the squirmiest, most shockingly funny dinner scene since Titus Andronicus served Tamora her own children...The few cavils about this extraordinary work come near the end, but they have less to do with fatigue and more to do with a few small narrative missteps.

New York A-
(Jeremy McCarter) Not just good, but freakishly, atavistically good...Though Letts, an actor-playwright who lives in Chicago, has shown no prior inclination toward writing massive family epics, he’s recaptured the nobility of American drama’s mid-century heyday while still creating something entirely original. Well, almost entirely...Fortunately, the play’s sensibility proves fresher than its material—those three hours fly by.

Backstage A-
(David Sheward) There's a lot more going on in this three-hour-plus mash-up of O'Neill, Williams, Inge, Albee, and Letts' own brand of gallows humor...Letts uses the wickedly funny, grotesque perspective that infused his Killer Joe and Bug to offer a raucous, jaundiced, yet sympathetic view of the American family. It's tragic and hilarious at the same time.

Theater News Online A-
(Bill Stevenson) The best, most ambitious new American play to make it to Broadway in years. August: Osage County calls to mind masterpieces like Long Day's Journey into Night and Buried Child, but it's much funnier and less grim than those dramas. Letts' family saga is darkly comic rather than just dark.

Wall Street Journal B+
(Terry Teachout) No doubt it sounds like Tennessee Williams on a bender, but what makes August: Osage County so excitingly watchable is that Mr. Letts has (mostly) chosen to play these grim matters for laughs. The horrific family dinner at which Mom Weston (Deanna Dunagan) pops a double handful of downers and starts settling scores is a glittering piece of black comedy, and the cast, consummately well directed by Anna D. Shapiro, plays it to perfection...There's a catch, and it's a huge one: The hour-long first act is a pretentious piece of superfluous exposition that could and should have been cut...Take my word that it gets better—a whole lot better—after the first intermission.

Los Angeles Times B+
(Charles McNulty) The kind of hulking, multi-character American drama that excites award-givers, especially those with a bloodhound nose for literary precedent...But Letts' accomplishment has less to do with dramatic literature than with theatrical possibility. August: Osage County sets out a nearly 3 1/2-hour feast for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and these talented actors, led by director Anna D. Shapiro...devour every last morsel. As a credible tale of family dysfunction run to decadent extremes, or a commentary on the state of a strung-out nation in need of anger management, the writing can get strained. Yet as an occasion for a deft troupe to pull out all the stops in what's been waggishly described as "situation tragedy," the play gobsmackingly delivers.

Bloomberg News B
(John Simon) Is it more Oklahoma Oresteia or rural Peyton Place? Both, in fact...The writing artfully mixes drama and comedy, titillating witticism with incisive epigrams. Surprises, suspense and hilarity steadily increase, but so does the oppressive sense of schematism...Timport from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Co. ends up as mechanism rather than masterpiece. And yet: Anna D. Shapiro's direction is flawless, and the cast, but for one, could not be better...No one who enjoys challenging, full-tilt entertainment should abstain from this genuinely well-made Ship of Fools. Those expecting high art might want to think twice before boarding, but that will be their loss.

Talkin' Broadway B
(Matthew Murray) Letts has crafted as stirring and engaging a serious (if laugh-filled) drama as New York has seen since John Patrick Shanley's Doubt...This sobering a perfect potboiler for today, but feels like its long-term dust collector has come pre-attached...Psychologically, it's all extremely satisfying, but this Well-Made Play at times feels too eager to divest its treasures into neatly ordered piles. This makes for a slam-bang second half, when the payoffs of earlier setups are rapidly unleashed, but the play often crackles when it should explode in bursts of white-hot heat.

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) Americans love overeating, and Letts's three-hour-and-20-minute banquet of emotional recriminations, set when an Oklahoma poet's embittered clan gathers after his unexplained disappearance, seems perfect theater for a culture of obesity...Much of the material's familiar, and the distended structure only dimly approaches anything you could call dramatic shape, but the excessive length allows Letts to give all his characters multiple facets, and the crackle of his dialogue gives a batch of good actors plenty to chew on, though the loud chomping noises that Anna D. Shapiro's heavily italicized directing allows some of them to make may seem too excessive even for this picnic.

The Washington Post C-
(Peter Marks) The play might be crisply paced and spiced liberally with funny ripostes. The dramatist, Tracy Letts, knows how to write withering comebacks for his Oklahoma family of self-dramatizing pill-poppers, potheads, bed-hoppers, cradle-robbers, suicides and drunks. Yet for all its spiritual and literary pretensions, its debts to everything from the poetry of T.S. Eliot to Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to the Pietà, August: Osage County proves to be a disappointingly hollow experience. After three hours and 20 minutes in the company of Letts's spiteful, bilious, warring clan, there is nothing close to the kind of shattering payoff that you anticipate from a work of this scale and ambition.

The New Yorker C-
(Hilton Als) Reminded me of the awful daughters in the old Carol Burnett sketch routine Mama’s Place, which was itself a parody of Tennessee Williams at his most hysterical and derivative...Fortunately for [Letts], his fine director, Anna D. Shapiro, works to keep the melodrama from overtaking the rest of the show—and sometimes succeeds. Even so, the family’s secrets feel as contrived as the play’s regionalism—a corny mint julep laced with Valium. his Broadway début, clearly intends to prove himself a “major” playwright. To do so, he parodies his roots, rather than revealing them.

The Journal News D
(Jacques Le Sourd) A long night's journey into dime-store Edward Albee, and cheap imitation Eugene O'Neill. It lacks true wit and bite, and overstays its welcome by about 1 1/2 hours. I can't imagine who will fill all those seats at the Imperial.

The New York Times A+ 14; Variety A+ 14; Associated Press A+ 14; The Daily News A+ 14; USA Today A+ 14; Newsday A+ 14; New York Post A 13; Time Out NY A 13; Chicago Tribune A 13; CurtainUp A 13; Theatermania A 13; New York Sun A- 12; New York A- 12; Backstage A- 12; Theater News Online A- 12; Wall Street Journal B+ 11; Los Angeles Times B+ 11; Bloomberg News B 10; Talkin' Broadway B 10; Village Voice B- 9; The Washington Post C- 6; The New Yorker C- 6; The Journal News D 4; TOTAL: 264 / 23 = 11.48 (B+)

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