On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I, my mother and our former landlady (who is now my middle brother’s landlady) went to Saint Paul to attend the matinee performance of “August: Osage County” at Park Square Theatre.
Our former landlady, a retired drama instructor (who taught drama at the boys’ school I attended), sees practically every theater production in the Twin Cities, and knows practically everyone in the Minnesota theater community. Word from the local thespian grapevine has been that the Park Square Theatre production of “August: Osage County” was shaping up as something truly extraordinary—and our former landlady convinced us that a return visit to “August: Osage County” would be worth our time.
In February 2008, we had attended a performance of the original Broadway production of “August: Osage County” in New York. At the time, I wrote:
“August: Osage County” is, fundamentally, nothing more than a Carol Burnett comedy skit about a dysfunctional family—but a comedy skit that goes terribly awry, turning incredibly nasty if not absolutely vicious a few minutes into the first act. There was an undeniable fascination in watching members of a seedy and sordid family go after each other tooth and nail, tearing at old wounds and opening new ones. However, the play itself is a formulaic commercial vehicle, created not by a genuine dramatist but by a purveyor of pre-packaged synthetic materials.
The author, Tracy Letts, has obviously spent a lifetime parked in front of his television set. Every single dramatic device, every single character, every single situation, every single line, derived purely from the swamp of present-day television. Indeed, Friday night’s audience instinctively recognized this, reacting to the play as if it were watching the tube at home. The audience chattered during the play, and laughed at inappropriate times and at inappropriate lines, and even interjected jeers and cheers when characters in the play were in discomfort or received a comeuppance.
A patina of seriousness hangs over “August: Osage County” because, lathered into this unpleasant and distasteful vat of television writing, playwright Letts has liberally inserted vast chunks of the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Paul Zindel and Sam Shepard. It is all startlingly derivative, dismaying in its lack of originality.
Ironically, these deficiencies happen to be the play’s saving grace. Because it is so derivative and so unoriginal, and because it is so heavily-beholden to television, the play is easily laughed off. If the play were more powerful and more true, and the characters more believable, it would be disturbing. As it is, it is just a contemporary commercial vehicle, very much of its time, an entertainment that theatergoers may happily forget as soon as they exit the theater door.
A second viewing of “August: Osage County” causes me to reaffirm my sentiments from 2008: the play is derivative, unoriginal and exceedingly nasty. It is also exceedingly glib, boasting more clichés-per-minute than any play ever written. “August: Osage County” has absolutely nothing to do with art, but a great deal to do with entertainment.
And, in a good production, the play delivers huge helpings of entertainment. There is something morbidly fascinating about watching actors go after each other with hammer and tongs, bile flowing by the gallon.
The Park Square Theatre production was superb; it was the best thing I have ever encountered at the company. The production was at least as good as the original Broadway production. Park Square Theatre delivered three-and-a-half hours of pure entertainment.
The highest compliment I can pay the Saint Paul production was that it did not devolve into camp. Such was not true of the original Broadway production, which veered on the edge of camp the entire performance. (I have been told that the National Touring Company production of “August: Osage County”, which played the Twin Cities, was nothing but camp.)
However, that a repertory company in the Upper Midwest can offer a faultless production of something as odious as “August: Osage County”—and Park Square Theatre could never present Ibsen or Chekhov at such a high level—says something significant about the state of American theater.