Dread of Treading Old Territory

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sometimes, it's not the first look that keeps a critic up at night. It's the second.

"August: Osage County," a play that's been honored by everyone: the Tonys, the Pulitzers, the New York Drama Critics' Circle -- and, for all I know, would walk away with first prize in the Pillsbury bake-off -- is coming to town this fall. That it's a significant theater event, that it will stir passions during its Kennedy Center run starting Nov. 24, I have no doubt. And yet the prospect of its arrival does not fill me with unalloyed joy.

No, see, I'm apparently a rare creature: an "Osage County" skeptic. For months after I reviewed (with a shrug) its original Broadway production, e-mails would materialize in my inbox from fans of the play, questioning my sanity. I'm assuming it was more than one fan; the subject headings and phrasing of many of the e-mails were suspiciously similar. (And to be perfectly transparent about this, I did receive missives from playgoers who had been as underwhelmed as I after having spent 3 1/2 hours with the histrionic Oklahoma clan out of Tracy Letts's imagination.)

Even so, a reviewer would have to possess a self-confidence encased in three layers of reinforced steel not to be compelled to a bit of second guessing: Was I too hard on the play? Had the first wave of rhapsodic reviews that appeared before I'd had a chance to see it raised my expectations too wildly? Had I not recognized the advent of a new American classic?

With the national touring company's inaugural Washington visit looming, these are some of the questions I have to toss into the mix, as I approach the job of re-reviewing "August." Although I feel no compunction at the moment to retreat from my initial assessment, I also cannot shut myself off from the possibility of finding virtues in Letts's epic-length comedy-drama that I hadn't seen before. It's certainly in the interest of everyone involved that a reviewer remain hopeful. For there's hardly anything more lethal to the conversation about theater than a mind already made up.

You may be wondering about the logic of sending someone to tell you what he thinks about something he's already told you he didn't adore. Well, for one thing, seeing the same show many times comes with the territory. Theater was recycling long before the invention of plastic. (The term of art, of course, is "revival.") And works, too, unveiled elsewhere that cried out to be reviewed in their original shape, regularly make their way to local theaters, in the form of commercial national tours or entirely new productions by the city's nonprofit, subscription companies.

And you know what? You do, on occasion, change your mind. Take the Kennedy Center's recent staging of "Ragtime" a version that migrates to Broadway next month. The musical had little charm for me when it opened on Broadway in 1998, in a lavish production with big names and rapturous buzz. (It received mixed reviews and ultimately shuttered in the red.) The new incarnation, as conceived by director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, reduced the myriad schematic characters to more human scale and in the process imbued the show with some heart. I gave it a good review.

With "August," it's a little more complicated: The play making a month-long stop here is a direct descendant of the New York enterprise, which transferred from its original perch at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and ran on Broadway for 648 performances. Not only is the memory of seeing it still fresh for me, but I also was a player in its securing the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, as chairman of the five-person jury that ultimately nominated it for the award.

So I'm a grizzled vet of the arguments pro and con. In re-reading the play -- the story of a once-promising poet whose resentful extended family gathers on the occasion of his disappearance -- I certainly appreciate its strengths. Letts is a superb satirist, as he demonstrated in his earlier plays, such as the superlative trailer-trash comedy, "Killer Joe." And what's most admirable about "August" is the toxicity of its comedic moments, particularly as they filter through the corroded consciousness of its most delicious character, Violet, the furious, drug-addled family matriarch, to be played at the Kennedy Center by Estelle Parsons, who also played the role on Broadway.

What you long for in an American family drama that's being compared to works like "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is something more than a ripping yarn.

I see the surefire entertainment value in the piece, the familiar strings it strums in its dissection of the tussles of a monumentally dysfunctional American brood. But I've yet to be convinced it exudes a vital quality of what we deem to be benchmark drama: an upending of a genre, a breakthrough in narrative form. Heart-stopping originality. Perhaps that's my failure of vision, rather than "August's." In any case, it will be here soon -- so you won't have to take my word for it.

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