05 September 2009

the booze, the pills, the heat, the dust

There are spoilers a-plenty in here, so proceed at your own risk.

I was pretty pleased to get a third-row seat for August: Osage County, the highly decorated play by Tracy Letts that is now on its national tour. When I got to the Curran Theater last Thursday, however, I realized that my seat was on the far right of the auditorium and a bank of speakers blocked a considerable portion of the stage. (I’m not sure why they needed speakers there at all; sometimes the actors did sound amplified, but that might just have been their peculiar placement on stage and the bad acoustics, along with all the shouting.)

There was no warning when I bought the ticket that this was an obstructed-view seat, and there was certainly no discount: what with face value of the ticket, and processing fees, and “convenience” charges, the gangsters at Ticketmaster and Shorenstein-Hayes-Nederlander charged me almost $80 for my seat. Add in the need to buy myself dinner, even a cheap one, and the evening was pushing $100. That’s a pretty big pile of cash for what was basically three-and-a-half hours of people screaming “fuck!” at each other. I can get that from the voices in my head for free.

In case you’re thinking it doesn’t matter if the far edges of the stage are invisible, let me point out that this is possibly the most ineptly blocked play (direction by Anna D. Shapiro) I have ever seen. Large portions of the action take place at the extreme right or left of the stage, so though I could hear the actors I couldn’t always tell who was speaking or even who was there, and neither could a large number of those around me, judging from the constant whispers of “who’s talking?” and “I can’t see!”

And when the action was on the other side of the stage from me (for example, the big funeral dinner) the actors were seated so that not only were their backs to most of the audience, but they blocked those who were facing the audience. And even the occasional scene on the second level of the underutilized set was staged so that you couldn’t get a good view of the actors or their faces. Surprisingly little of the play takes place center stage, possibly because it is so dominated by a clunky, pointlessly “realistic” three-story house (scenic design by Todd Rosenthal).

Bad sightlines seemed to be a problem throughout the house. The women in front of me finally abandoned their seats, and when I saw a group of high-school drama students, dressed up for their evening out, prepare to sit there for the third act, I warned them that they wouldn’t be able to see a lot of the stage. They said they had been warned already, but they could see even less from their previous seats in the balcony.

So it wasn’t until the end of the lengthy opening monologue that I saw who Beverly Weston (Jon deVries) was talking to – it turned out to be Johnna Monevata (DeLanna Studi), a young Cheyenne woman who is desperate enough for work to take a job as housekeeper there. Beverly is a hard-drinking, crusty literary man (one highly praised book of poems in the 1960s, and then silence), of a type that is instantly all-too-familiar even if you’ve never encountered the type before. I was pretty relieved when his disappearance turned out to be suicide, since that meant I wouldn’t have to listen to any more of his wry, crusty takes on life. His disappearance prompts the family to converge.

Estelle Parsons plays Beverly’s wife Violet, a pill-popping harpy. So far we have a major alcoholic and a prescription-drug addict, and here’s my problem with dramas about addiction: they’re not dramatic. There is a choice to be made, so this isn’t a story like that of Oedipus, just living his life (traveling, killing, marrying) only to discover fate has trapped him cruelly. And though it sounds like the essence of drama to have a choice to make, the addict has already made it: addicts always choose their addiction. That's what addiction means. So despite the sham-glamour of its nostalgie de la boue quality, addiction has a pre-determined and overly predictable arc, one that is less about fate than about some bad choices that have already been made. So stories of addiction have to be about how the addiction affects those around the addict.

And there just isn’t enough variety in how this family reacts, given the length of time we spend with them. Mostly they scream obscenity-laden accusations and insults at each other. It’s sort of like those socially conscious Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s, only not as well acted and written (some of the zingers are considerably less zingy than others), bloated to unsustainable lengths, and filled with such a Tourette’s-like number of obscenities that David Mamet would be reaching for his blue pencil to eliminate the deadening excess. I myself have the bad habit of swearing like a drunken sailor’s drunken parrot, but I found the effect stultifying (and less than entirely convincing in a woman-centered family with academic pretensions and connections).

No one in the family seems to have thought about addiction and its effects in any serious way. No one seems to have thought about it in a superficial way, either. There’s quite a bit of television watching going on, but no one seems to have run across a single episode of Oprah, or even Jerry Springer, that might spark a few thoughts about their family, its cruelty, and the role played therein by various drugs. Late in the third act, Barbara Fordham (Shannon Cochran), the eldest of the three daughters, casually bums a cigarette off the sheriff (Marcus Nelson, one of the more convincing performers) she’s flirting with, even though she has already said she gave up smoking years before. So here’s an addict who’s managed to kick her addiction, whose life has been warped by her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s dependency on pills, and who is trying (ineffectually) to keep her fourteen-year-old daughter from smoking – and her mother, by the way, also has cancer of the mouth, no doubt brought about by her smoking – and she just resumes the habit as lightly as if she were reaching for a second little cookie when she knows she should probably lose a couple of pounds.

Where have these people been, that there is such blithe unawareness of family patterns of addiction? The light-hearted approach to drugs we no longer take quite so lightly is not the only thing that makes the whole play seem as if it really should be set in the 1940s (or, perhaps, as if it was actually written then). On the day of Beverly’s funeral, movie-buff Jean (the fourteen-year-old daughter, played by Emily Kinney), wants to watch the silent version of Phantom of the Opera on TV instead of whatever family activity she’s supposed to be attending. I know this sounds crazy, but why not just tell the kid (who, after all, barely knew her grandfather) that you can record the show for her? Or even – I know this sounds even crazier, but hear me out – maybe there’s some way of actually acquiring or even renting such films oneself, and watching them at one’s leisure! Instead Barbara reacts as she always does, with ineffectual and obscenity-larded bluster. (Barbara spends a lot of time screaming, often about how selfish people are for not thinking of her.) There are solutions, thoughts, and possibilities that are obvious to our time, but seem not to occur to any of these people. The play is set in our time, but seems weirdly not of it.

Hey, have I mentioned that this thing is three-and-a-half hours long? Length is a peculiar quality in art. Sometimes length, and surrendering the amount of time needed, is an important part of the experience (yes, I’m a Wagnerite – but I will tell you Meistersinger is too long). I’ve seen one-hour performances that dragged and three-hour performances that flew by. I try to avoid saying things like “it’s too long” or “it gets boring,” because those are uselessly subjective reactions; it’s better to try to figure out why exactly something strikes you as too long – for instance, the material isn’t varied or interesting enough to sustain the length, or the length gives you too much time to dwell on inconsistencies in the plotting and psychology.

So about August: Osage County, let me just say on the subject of its length that the material here isn’t varied or interesting enough to sustain the length. And you’re given too much time to dwell on inconsistencies in plotting and psychology.

There are lots of big moments that fall apart even as they’re taking place; for example, the endings of the first two acts. The first act ends with everyone wondering where Beverly is, what it means that they found his boat but not him, and so forth. Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (Jeff Still) is trying to comfort her, and she bursts out, “Bill, Daddy’s dead!” The stage goes black and the house lights come up. So her blanket declaration raises lots of interesting questions. But in the beginning of the second act, instead of having them answered, we see Barbara collapse in shocked sobs when the sheriff comes by to say they’ve found the body. Bill never asks her what she meant by her earlier declaration, or why she’s so surprised when it turns out to be right. Is she just someone who likes to make sweeping statements for effect? And no one in this ruthless family calls her on it?

Then at the end of the second act, when she’s had enough of her mother’s jabs, she decides they’re going to make Violet go clean. She orders the family to search the usual hiding places for Violet’s pills (they’ve all done this before). Violet resists, which leads to an unconvincing and poorly staged fight between the two women. Barbara screams, “Don’t you get it? I’m in charge now!” Maybe I would have found the moment more effective if Barbara hadn’t already been screaming most of her lines. But even so it’s unconvincing on the face of it. This is a woman who can’t even keep her own fourteen-year-old daughter from smoking (both tobacco and marijuana). And she’s supposed to control a wily old woman who once went into rehab with pills hidden in her vagina (Barbara knows she did this – she’s the one who tells her sisters)? Why is everyone, even those who were just fighting with Barbara, obeying her without question? Why are they even thinking this is an effective method of handling addiction?

It’s all too clear where some of the storylines are going. When Karen, the youngest daughter (Amy Warren) shows up from her home in Miami babbling about the bad luck she’s had and her romantic troubles but now she’s found someone who’s really a good man, you know before he even shows up that Steve (Laurence Lau) is going to be slick, shady, and unfaithful. Sure enough, he’s soon trying to seduce Jean. His defense when he’s caught and Barbara angrily screams that Jean is fourteen is that “she said she was fifteen!” OK, I’ll give credit where it’s due – that line made me laugh a lot, and was probably my favorite moment in the play.

Then at other times things come up that, given the nature of those involved, should most likely already have come up, if not for the dramatic necessity of saving them for us. Uncle Charlie (Paul Vincent O’Connor) tells his wife (Violet’s sister) Mattie Fae that if she doesn’t stop her relentless belittlement of their son Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key) he will kick her ass to the side of the road (this is said in a dignified and less threatening way than the words might make you think), and though he is grateful for their 37 years of marriage, he’s not sure there’s going to be a 38th if she doesn’t change her ways. Judging by the applause, I wasn’t the only one happy that someone finally had the decency to talk sense to one of these shrill harridans, but it’s pretty clear that this is Mattie Fae’s life-long pattern. It’s dramatically effective to have Charlie stand up to her, but you wonder why a basically thoughtful man like Charlie waited so long.

I realize that you have to accept certain things for plays to go, but you need to keep things moving along fast enough so that you don’t start questioning the dramatic conventions. So if you tell me that two sets of identical twins, master and servant, were separated in childhood and now are suddenly reunited in the same town where no one can tell them apart, yeah, I’m in. Tell me that identical twins, boy and girl, are separated in a storm and the girl dresses like a boy and then the boy comes to town and people mistake them, sure, I’ll play. But then things have to move fast enough and interestingly enough so that you don’t question too much why the people on stage aren’t noticing certain things.

If I’m giving over three and a half hours, I need something a bit better than just a little fun with my dysfunctional. These big sprawling family dramas are dependent on certain conventions: for instance, that the more shocking dark secrets will only be revealed at dramatically opportune moments, even when those involved are unscrupulous and drug-addled, or that certain confrontations will take place years after they realistically would have, and, most of all, that you are inexorably, deeply, inescapably connected to your family, no matter how viciously destructive they are. Maybe that’s why this play seems to be happening in an earlier time, one with tighter social structures and a different sense of obligation than our own.

There’s a pretense that these things are not dramatic conventions, but instead deep emotional and psychological truths. I’m not buying it. The Weston daughters are all middle-aged women with the usual varieties of life experience. If you’re that age and still playing along, you need to realize that you’ve decided to be part of the problem. A pill-popping old woman starts insulting everyone and announces that she’s going to tell them a few home truths, and no one even giggles or rolls her eyes? I’m thinking that’s not the first time they’ve heard that particular speech. You’d think they’d have more effective, or at least more entertaining, responses than baffled hurt or outraged obscenity.

It's always a bad sign when I check not only the ticket stub but also the credit card slip to see how much I've spent on a performance. To add to the irritations of the evening, BART for whatever unannounced reason was not running the 11:20 train, so I ended up waiting almost half an hour for a train home. It was almost 1:00 in the morning by the time I got to bed, and of course I had to be at work at my usual hour the next day, so I felt like a zombie, a zombie whose last memory was a waste of time and money.

17 comments:

sfmike said...

There are many felicities in your long, fabulous review but my favorite is: "That’s a pretty big pile of cash for what was basically three-and-a-half hours of people screaming “fuck!” at each other. I can get that from the voices in my head for free."

pjwv said...

Hey, thanks. Sometimes I can tell which people are going to like which lines.

vicmarcam said...

Am I evil to get happy when I find out you didn't like a performance because I know I'm going to enjoy the review? Sorry. The part that made me laugh the most was your relief at the suicide because you wouldn't have to hear the wry, crusty takes on life.
I wasted full minutes regretting not going to see this. Had I known the role addictions played, I would have not wasted that time. What you said about the overly predictable arc is so true. As I was reading it, I was thinking about Beckett's Happy Days and how it took something predictable and made the play about the predictability itself. And it didn't take three and a half hours.

pjwv said...

I'm delighted that someone got some pleasure out of my long expensive evening, even if it wasn't me. I'm nice like that.

But now I'm wondering what you heard about it that didn't mention the addictions, and why you wanted to see it.

I think you'll have your chance eventually anyway. As I was watching it, I thought, "prestige project on HBO!"

Yeah, there was a lack of awareness in the family that causes a double track in the play: we're supposed to believe these are long-time patterns, yet everyone reacts as if they've never dealt with any of these behaviors before. And there seemed no awareness of the unawareness.

L. Strether said...

As you know, I loved this play from start to finish, for many of the same reasons you disliked it. Yes, the characters have muted responses (or none) to situations they should considered or acted upon earlier given the family's history but I saw it as the lethargy, self-defeat and irrepsonsibilty that takes root and then becomes the norm in that environment (and was more than willing to go with it).

Yes, the Weston daughters are indeed part of the problem, culpable in what's become of their family. The Westons as metaphor for contemporary America, especially during the Bush years, worked for me, precisely because Letts uses such familiar conventions and situations to comment on the collapse of social structures and obligations.

Yes, it's a bit of " I, the playwright will hold the mirror to the ugly face" but in the reflection I saw faces and circumstances I recognized all too clearly.

He took a similar path with "Killer Joe," which I enjoyed, but that play is less ambitious.

And I thought it was really fucking funny.

pjwv said...

I didn't think the characters did have muted or no response, though -- I thought they had the responses of people who hadn't thought about how to deal with certain situations, even though these situations were supposed to have gone on for years.

Lethargy I can understand. Muted seems sensible. I think your description makes it sound Chekhovian, which would actually have made emotional sense to me as a response to the place and circumstances.

But being wounded when someone who's spent a life time hurting you says something mean? Screaming obscenities back when someone screams at you? You're just playing along, and you need to recognize that. Or you're just trying to make for lively theater. OK, but at this self-important length I'm going to start asking why certain people keep doing certain things.

I saw occasional glimmers that Letts was trying to say something larger about America, but the family pathologies were too peculiar to them and didn't really line up with what I see as the current American problems, except insofar as any story about failure and self-indulgence is a reflection of America.

I don't think Letts really does use the familiar conventions to comment on the collapse of social structures and obligations, and frankly if he does, then I dislike the play even more. I'm all in favor of smashing structures and forgetting obligations that tie people to poisonous, destructive environments.

I think he used the dramatic conventions because they make for entertaining theater, not as any comment on contemporary society. I don't think he really thought through how people would act or react in contemporary society, as opposed to how people act in big sprawling family sagas.

If he had, he would have laid more blame on the Weston daughters for not recognizing the poisonous family situation and doing something about it, even if it's just emotionally distancing themselves.

Here's where the length is a real problem. We spend too much time with these people and aren't given enough. Take Barbara, for instance. She's a middle-aged woman struggling through life, and she gets dumped by her husband for a younger woman. Add to that the actress's very attractive Susan-Sarandonish looks, and you have a character who's going to bring out the gallant and protective side of the audience (well, maybe more the men in the audience). But she's so relentlessly -- and she's on stage a lot -- shrill and vulgar that I was wondering why the husband bothered with her in the first place. And I don't think we're meant to see her that way. I think there's just a large portion of the aging theater audience that actually still thinks it's shocking and funny when middle aged women say fuck. In 3 1/2 hours, Letts could have shown us a few more aspects of her, including some sympathetic ones.

And the scene at the end where she's trying to distract the other sister from telling their mother that she's running off with Little Charles, who it turns out is not just her first cousin but her half-brother -- embarrassing. I kept thinking of how much better John Sayles's Lone Star handles a similar situation.

pjwv said...

Blogger wouldn't let me publish my whole comment. Here's the rest:

I don't think the Weston daughters are culpable for what's become of their family. I think they're culpable for how they respond.

It's not a problem for me when playwrights hold the mirror up to our ugliness, though, yeah, they should avoid doing so smugly. But I have to see something worth looking at in the reflection. I have to see a reflection of the world, and not just of other stage works. I did in fact recognize certain themes and situations, but all that did was make me realize how differently these things usually work out in the world off the stage.

As for funny, well, I did laugh a bit, but not nearly as much as I expected. I mentioned the line I found funniest. But on the whole I found the dialogue surprisingly flat and over-reliant on obscenity. I tried to avoid describing the family as ruthless, monstrous, etc, because that leads you to expect a certain level of highly entertaining viciousness, which to me just wasn't there. (I have the same problem with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by the way. Maybe I'm just not as nice as I like to think I am.)

I have no familiarity with Killer Joe. Another play by him?

vicmarcam said...

Here's what I heard about the play: multigenerational family drama, three story house spectacular set, everyone gathers at the death of a patriarch, multi-award winning. Sounded right up my alley.

pjwv said...

Well, that's actually all accurate, except for the "spectacular" part of the set description. And they actually gather when the patriarch goes missing, and it turns out he's dead.

Considering the multiple awards (the Pulitzer, multiple Tonys -- Tonies?), I was definitely expecting more than I got.

Sibyl said...

Dude!* You saved me a whole bunch of money I didn't have. I now owe you a couple of drinks, or pastries, at the very least.

*I live in Santa Cruz and I have a 13-year-old, and sometimes I cannot help myself.

pjwv said...

Yeah, I feel I took one for the team on this.

But if you have any curiosity at all about the play, I'm pretty sure you'll eventually be able to catch it in DVD form. They're talking about making it into a movie, but given the length I'm really seeing it as an HBO thing.

The thought of trying to get home to Santa Cruz after this play . . . yipes. Even with a 7:30 start time, it doesn't end until 11:00.

Oh, and you can expect about a dozen people to disrupt the performance at 8:00 when they stroll in, having assumed that all plays start at 8:00.

By the way, I call people "dude" all the time. It's one of those ironic things that ended up becoming a habit. I suppose it's a good thing I'm not younger -- I'd be calling everyone bro, or even God help me, brah.

Sibyl said...

My theater-maniac niece and I were talking about seeing it in LA, so I'm serious about owing you: you saved me a 6 hour drive each way.

If you're at the opera Sept. 30, Oct. 6 or Oct. 27, look me up in the nosebleed seats and I'll stake you to the goody of your choice! I'll be the trying-to-age-gracefully lady with the bag from Citizen Cake (because I find a sugar high can really get you through the drive back home).

pjwv said...

Argh! I'm not at the opera any of those days! But I'll check the dates in case I have some crazy idea about seeing something twice. I do have a terrible sweet-tooth.

L. Strether said...

We'll have to split the difference and say our tastes diverge when it comes to plays centered on dysfunctional American families, because I also like "Who's Afraid of V.W." whether it's done for laughs (the Kathleen Turner production) or not-so-much (the film). The last play I enjoyed as much as I did "August" was "Doubt."

You disliked this play the way I hated "Spring Awakening"- so I'm going to sit out American Idiot after asking a friend if she thought I should see it (based on the huge hype it's getting) and her response was "Why on Earth would you do that to yourself?"

Are you planning on seeing it?

pjwv said...

Not to belabor the point, but I just didn't find this play funny enough, or illuminating enough (same with Who's Afraid etc). I can watch Die Mommy Die in less than half the time August: Osage County takes, and I think it says more and I actually laugh.

I didn't see Spring Awakening -- I really went back and forth on that one. I ended up skipping it. Amplification always works against musicals when I'm trying to decide if I want to go. And what I heard about it just wasn't matching up to the hype -- what is so ground-breaking and innovative about using rock music in a musical?

I only know the one Green Day song (I hope you had the time of your life) -- I can tell these things are monster hits when I've actually heard them -- and thought it was fine, but really don't see much need to see the show. I'm sure it will be overly amplified. And the whole concept -- as I understand it, basically, life in the USA is rough -- is one I agree with so completely that I don't feel the need to see a show based on it. Especially in Berkeley. I can sit there with the rest of the old white people feeling rebellious because we're listening to the rock and the roll. What is this going to tell us that we don't already know, that will make it worth the time and money?

At least it's better than using hiphop to convey relevance. My heart always sinks when I hear the hiphop start up.

sfmike said...

"My heart always sinks when I hear the hiphop start up." is my favorite new line.

pjwv said...

It's just such a canary in the coalmine for me. Years ago, when I saw an awful Dario Fo play at ART (which is still sharing the title of "Worst Thing I've Ever Seen on Stage" with I Was Looking at the Ceiling etc) I picked up the program and saw that the director's note was titled, "Clowns as Challengers." I should have taken warning right then.

My heart also sinks when the conductor walks out and, instead of picking up his baton, picks up a microphone. . .