These days most new American plays clock in at about 90 minutes, without intermission and with a cast small enough not to scare off regional theaters. Playwrights appear to be afraid to test the patience of theatergoers who are used to 30- and 60-minute blocks of home entertainment. Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, on the other hand, is an honest-to-God epic: It runs three hours and 20 minutes, has two intermissions, and boasts a cast of 13.
The title isn't catchy, there are no movie stars (the actors originated their roles in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production in Chicago), there are no British accents, there's no singing and dancing, and the plot involves a reunion of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family. What's the selling point, you may well ask.
The selling point is that Tracy Letts (Off Broadway's Killer Joe and Bug) has written the best, most ambitious new American play to make it to Broadway in years. August: Osage County calls to mind masterpieces like Long Days Journey into Night and Buried Child, but it's much funnier and less grim than those dramas. Letts' family saga is darkly comic rather than just dark.
Like Long Day's Journey's Mary Tyrone, August's Violet Weston (Deanna Dunagan) is a drug addict. Violet pops so many pills that it's a miracle she can make it down the stairs-in precarious, staggering, headlong fashion. Her husband Beverly (Dennis Letts ), a retired professor and poet, drinks-a lot. That's the deal they've struck to endure their marriage. They've also decided to cover all the windows so that they can't distinguish between night and day.
A crisis arises when a family member disappears. Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed) and her husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) turn up, as do Violet and Beverly's three daughters, Barbara (Amy Morton), Ivy (Sally Murphy), and Karen (Mariann Mayberry). Barbara brings her husband Bill (Jeff Perry), though they're in the middle of a messy separation, and their precocious pot-smoking teenage daughter Jean (Madeleine Martin). Mattie Fae and Charlie's son Little Charles (Ian Barford) has to endure his mother's nonstop belittling, and Karen's fiancé Steve (Brian Kerwin) gets a tad too flirtatious with a certain underage family member. Sheriff Deon (Troy West) brings back memories of high school for Barbara, who was his prom date. Meanwhile, newly hired Native American housekeeper Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) valiantly tries to keep things from completely falling apart.
The entire cast is terrific, especially Dunagan as the profanity-spewing, wobbly, but not entirely out-of-it matriarch Violet. Morton, Murphy, and Mayberry do an excellent job of showing that the sisters are at once distant and close. At times Morton becomes too broadly comic, however. Director Anna D. Shapiro should rein her in when the actress goes over the top. And Chuck Coyl's fight choreography isn't always as believable as it could be.
But those are minor quibbles in an otherwise outstanding production of a thoroughly entertaining, always absorbing new play that deserves to run at least until the Tony Awards (where it should be a strong contender in several categories). Without a name-brand author like Tom Stoppard, August: Osage County is going to need more than just rave reviews to last through the long, cold winter. New Yorkers will have to snap up tickets and tell their friends to do the same. Let's hope they do, to send a message that Broadway can still support a superb American play that doesn't feature a TV