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.