I wanted to like August: Osage County. Mostly because it will most certainly sweep the Tony Awards this season and more than one person I like and respect has called it "the greatest American play since Streetcar."
But however entertained I was during its 3+ hours, I have to say: Violet Weston (Traci Letts' central character) she ain't no Blanche DuBois.
But all references to Streetcar notwithstanding, I think the more apt comparison would be to Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, a play that packs a punch (or two) but is generally not considered great. Personally, I think the Marc Blitzstein musical adaptation, Regina, is a significant improvement and recommend it to anyone in search of a mid-century quintessentially American opera. Several scenes in particular bring tears to my eyes every time I play 'em.
I'm not sure what August: Osage County is supposed to be about. And I don't mean this in the trite way in which audiences sometimes ask us "What were you trying to say with this play?" No. I just mean: Where does its soul live? What is eating its way out from deep within its core?
Certainly not any one of the vices or addictions exhibited by the enormous cast of characters. And, if there is one central character, it would seem to be Violet Weston, the family matriarch, a woman who has some wonderfully biting dialogue that elicits everything from laughter to winces to full-out gasps from the audience. She really is a piece of work. And an entertaining one at that! I howled several times.
I really had fun in that theatre! And yet...
At the end of the evening, as we filed out into the balmy night, I wondered what was driving this play, what was at its core. Edward Albee (Is he now the most-quotable living human being on the planet?) recently gave the following brilliant answer to a question Charlie Rose posed on his show about the lackluster nature of most Broadway fare.
"If one is going to shell out upwards of one-hundred dollars for an evening of theatre, shouldn't one at least expect to be somehow changed fundamentally by the experience?"
Yes one should. And we are when we stumble out of a first-rate performance of Streetcar or Death of a Salesman or Beyond Therapy or House of Blue Leaves or any number of great American plays.
How does this happen? (And when it doesn't, what's missing?)
Well, I would argue that one key ingredient is: change over time. These plays feel like journeys because their central characters evolve between curtain's rise and fall and reveal things to us about the human condition that resonate with our own lives on some fundamental level.
However strained some of its transitions may be, The Little Foxes takes us on a chilling journey and most definitely reveals a loneliness at the core of greed in a totally unique and eye-opening way. Some might complain about its melodramatic tone or unwieldy structure but at its final curtain it leaves its audience unsettled, shaken up... as Albee would say, "altered."
Although there's more than enough heartache and hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth on display on the stage of the Music Box theatre these days, sadly in my estimation, it just doesn't add up to a meaningful whole. And as I headed out onto 45th street, tucking my Playbill into my back pocket, I realized that I had been thoroughly entertained in the safest and most non-intrusive way. Not one of my assumptions about the world or humanity or myself were in any way challenged. At all.
And I am sure it will not be long before Violet Weston and all her relatives are but a faint memory, difficult to conjure up.
Not so for Blanche DuBois. Ever since our first encounter, she has never been a stranger to me.