'August: Osage County': A Soapy Drama With No Guiding Light

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

NEW YORK -- Reading the rhapsodic reviews of "August: Osage County" by various critics over the past week put me in mind of the woman at the table next to the supposedly aroused Meg Ryan in the film "When Harry Met Sally": I wanted to have what they were having.

So after the first wave of rave notices, I went eagerly to the Imperial Theatre, expecting the promised catharses at every turn. Well, talk about fake orgasms! 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.

You're worn down by the sheer volume of revelation, and ultimately, by the ordinariness of what's revealed. You wonder whether the playwright could have spent more time allowing us to understand the characters' natures, and not just their bad habits. I was left with the curious impression that the extravagant overuse of family-secret disclosure had been orchestrated for less momentous types of gratification; the play, in fact, handles these disclosures as if they were more likely to come from the pen of Agnes Nixon than Eugene O'Neill.

The primary beneficiaries of this literate soap opera are the actors and, in particular, the excellent Amy Morton, who plays the eldest daughter, Barbara, and gets some of the best of the primo one-liners. Letts's characters -- monstrous moms, damaged daughters, sleazeball boyfriends, snide teenagers -- are all out of the Guide to Standardized Dysfunctional Stage Types. And so the 13 cast members, most of them imported from the original production of "August" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, know by sense and muscle memory how to play them. And we, by pattern and reflex, know exactly how to receive them.

The plot-driven "August" revolves around the disappearance of the family patriarch, Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts, the playwright's father), an Oklahoma poet and academic. We're quickly apprised of a likely rationale for his skedaddling: his wife Violet (Deanna Dunagan). She's a cancer-ridden, Percocet-gulping, word-slurring gorgon so scabrous you could imagine her reducing Martha to tears in the first minutes of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Into the homestead pour the rogue's gallery of miserable, alienated Westons and other assorted relations. The three sisters (Hmm!), Violet's primary victims, are accompanied by mates who have cheated on them, plan on cheating or are unsuited to them in ways that will be revealed as just plain unappetizing. A blowsy sister of Violet's (Rondi Reed) and her mild husband (Francis Guinan) also make the scene. (Don't worry: They have a secret, too.)

As a kind of benign, ethereal counterweight, Letts installs a young American Indian woman (Kimberly Guerrero) in the manse to cook the meals and remind us of the moral strength and enduring spirituality of the people who had civilized Oklahoma long before all these neurotic Europeans moved in.

You keep waiting for "August" to stir the stewpot with something other than a bracing joke or shocking twist. But the characters never act out of impulses we regard as inherently affecting or tragically inevitable. They simply act out. Shortly after the older fiance (Brian Kerwin) of one sister, Karen (Mariann Mayberry), arrives in the house, for instance, he is not only ogling Karen's 14-year-old niece, but he is cornering her in the kitchen. Is this any sort of mirror on recognizable behavior? Even the clueless targets on "To Catch a Predator" seem at times to exhibit more finesse.

The sandpaper-voiced Dunagan plays the bravura role of Violet as a foul, destructive sociopath. Although an accusation is leveled at one daughter that she takes after the Medea-like Violet, the charge is hard to credit because it has to be considered a miracle that any of her progeny survived childhood. Dunagan fails to make her compelling. And given how easy it is to dismiss Violet as ridiculously evil, the drama's conclusion proves to be an unpersuasive attempt to recast her as worthy of empathy.

Anna D. Shapiro's energetic direction and Todd Rosenthal's architecturally impressive design for the house both play into the idea that we are in the presence of important work. I am in total sympathy with my colleagues in the desire to find and crown the next great American play. Regrettably, the ersatz characters of "August" point in the direction of something that earns laughs but nothing more significant.

For a more concise and somewhat meatier evening, you can venture into the Booth Theatre, across the street from the Imperial, for the latest play by Conor McPherson, author of Studio Theatre's current hit, "Shining City." This new work, "The Seafarer," is a fine platform for some terrific acting, even if the story -- having to do with a visit by Satan to the home of hard-drinking types on Christmas Eve -- falls just short of stirring.

The central performances by a brooding David Morse, a touchingly foolish Conleth Hill and the sublimely tipsy Jim Norton are as fully inhabited as you could wish for. As the Devil, Ciarán Hinds is perhaps a bit too consistently menacing, and the way McPherson ends the piece feels more than a little contrived. Of course, there is always this writer's poetry to sustain and nourish us, even on the harshest of winter nights.

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, Ann G. Wrightson; sound, Richard Woodbury; original music, David Singer; fight choreographer, Chuck Coyl. With Jeff Perry, Sally Murphy, Ian Barford, Troy West. About 3 hours 20 minutes. At Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.

The Seafarer, written and directed by Conor McPherson. Sets and costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Mathew Smethurst-Evans; fight director, Thomas Schall. With Sean Mahon. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Tickets for both: call 212-239-6200 or visit

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