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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National ( Lyttelton)


  Sally Murphy as Ivy (left) and Rondi Reed as Mattie

Tracy Letts's August: Osage County has been called the first great American play of the 21st century. It won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play. And while I would certainly go along with the notion that it's probably the most entertaining American play this century has so far produced, greatness just passes it by.

For starters, it's too conscious a throwback to the kind of well-made three-act family drama that has been a staple of Broadway for decades. Think Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman and Sam Shepard. It's a hommage to all of them.

The setting is a sprawling, three-story home in the Oklahoma outback. It's mid summer, there's no air-conditioning and it's 110 in the shade. Beverly Weston, the boozy paterfamilias - and a minor poet - has suddenly gone a.w.o.l, a state of affairs that cues the arrival of his entire family. Apart from his pill-popping wife Violet- a harridan with mouth cancer and a lethally vicious tongue to go with it - his brood includes his three grown-up daughters, one of whom is unhappily married, another who is about to be married, while the third is in love with a man who turns out to be her half brother.

Also in tow are the three men in their lives as well as the pot-smoking teen-aged daughter of the married couple.

The only "normal" person is the Weston's Native-American cook-cum-housekeeper whom Beverly employed just a few days before he disappeared.

In the play's most compelling scene, a confrontational dinner party reminiscent of the one in the 1988 Danish film Celebration, later adapted for the stage as Festen, a cemetery of skeletons come rattling out of the family closet and impart a new meaning to the word dysfunctional.

In the end, when all the mischief that can be wrought has been wrought, the malevolent Violet - like her predecessor Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes - is left all alone, with only her housekeeper for company. What makes this litany of misery so entertaining, is precicely the in-your-face parodic element that propels it.

Yet it's this very element that also robs it of its claim to greatness. For that, Letts has still to acquire a tone of voice as unique as Arthur Miller's in Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams's in A Streetcar Named Desire and Eugene O'Neill's in Long Day's Journey into Night - the greatest of all dysfunctional family dramas.

Nor was I convinced by its underlying message which draws parallels between the nihilism and despair of the Westons with the decline of contemporary American morals.

What Letts has written is a hugely entertaining, high-quality soap opera, with its tongue quite far into its cheek, and which leavens the gothic, over-the-top elements in the plot with lashings upon lashings of humour as well as witty one-liners.

For all its heavy-duty family revelations, August: Osage County is a very funny play indeed, which is why its three and a half hour running time seemed half that length.

Another reason why it offers such an exhilarating evening in the theater is the quality of the production.

Few, if any companies in America today are capable of the type of integrated ensemble acting provided by Chicago's influential Steppenwolf Company, from whence this production hails.

Everything about it - the direction by Anna D. Shapiro , the set by Todd Rosenthal (a hommage in itself to the great Broadway designer Jo Mielziner), the lighting by Ann G. Wrightson and the performances, are exemplary.

Especially the performances - with Amy Morton as Barbara, the married sister, dazzlingly fine and with a mordant line in invec


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