Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Edge Of Camp

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.


  1. I'm surprised that you mother didn't walk out in the first Act. My mother and I walked out of "August: Osage County," starring Estelle Parsons. My mother had been sickened by the abundance of "unfunny" profanity.

  2. We had seen “August: Osage County” before, so we knew what to expect.

    And, yes, indeed, the play’s language is vile. It is possible to write off the whole play as vile.

    The actress playing the mother in the Saint Paul production had been the understudy for Estelle Parsons in New York and on tour. Parsons missed not a single performance, so the understudy never went on. Playing the role in her hometown in a local staging was her reward for two years of standing by.

    When we saw “August: Osage County” in New York, it was before Parsons had assumed the role of the mother, so we never caught Parsons in a part that very well might have been written for her.

    We would not have gone to see the play a second time except Julia, the former drama teacher, had insisted: it was destined to be the production of the year, she argued, and we would be fools to miss it.

    In that sense, she was probably right. The set design, the acting, the direction: all matched—at least—the quality of the Broadway production (which had been an imported regional theater company production from Chicago; that particular Chicago regional theater company is markedly inferior to The Guthrie).

    When you attended the play, did you make it to the second act? The second act is the best—or at least the funniest—of the three acts.

    Playwright Letts hates women. He also hates men. He must be a very, very strange man.

  3. We saw "August: Osage County" about a year and a half ago while visiting my three nephews, who all live in Loraine County, Ohio. (I hadn't seen any of them since 2000.) My mother saw an interview there by a local TV station about the play; the person interviewed compared the play - if you can believe it - to "Mamma's Place," a forgetable TV spin-off from the ancient Carole Burnet Show involving a dysfunctional family dominated by Vickie Lawrence's "Mamma." (My family was - and continues to be - very much TV-addicted, I'm ashamed to report.)

    Since my mother liked both "Mamma's Place" and Estelle Partons (from "Bonnie and Clyde"), she naively insisted that the two of us see the play at the Palace Theater in downtown Cleveland. I did not want to go, but I acquiensced, having promised myself after the death of my father that I would allow her to do whatever she wanted (even driving us all the way to Ohio herself).

    My mother squirmed all through Act One; we left afterward. (She no longer likes Estelle Partons, by the way.) In all fairness, however, Parsons was frighteningly convincing in the part.

    I've heard every imaginative and unimaginative variation on the most popular word of English profanity on the planet (and every word of Russian profanity, which is by far more dirty than anything any American can dream up); so I am not as "sheltered" as my mother has been.

    Profanity has its place, I suppose; but when it is so shot-gun nasty and gratuitous, as it is in "August: Osage County," I admit that I was greatly disturbed. More disturbing to me was the audience's gleeful reaction to the smutfeast - ESPECIALLY when the playwright was using his odious characters to channel his obvious hatred for our beloved country as a whole. I honestly wanted to hang the man. Really.

    It's experiences like that last year that convict me of abandoning modern theater performances altogether. I've seen only two productions since, both in Orlando: a loathsomely inept "Hamlet" and a comedy based on Alfred Hitchcock's "39 Steps," which was at least good for a couple of smiles here and there.

    I'm sorry, Andrew, but I guess I am just hopeless dated.

    Now, I'll finally shut up.

  4. That's "acquiesced," not "acquiensced."

  5. That's Estelle ParSons, of course.

    NOW I shut up.

  6. I wrote, after seeing the play in 2008, that “August: Osage County” was a Carol Burnett comedy sketch gone terribly awry.

    While the national tour was underway, Estelle Parsons gave an interview in which she said two very interesting things: (1) that the play was nothing more than entertainment, and should not be confused with serious theater; and (2) that audience reaction to the play bothered her, because audiences lapped up the depravity and violence depicted onstage and, further, laughed throughout much of the play, even when it was not appropriate to do so.

    Parsons’s remarks are consistent with what I wrote after my first exposure to the play.

    I wrote in 2008 that the play was nothing more than a synthetic commercial vehicle, and I also wrote in 2008 that the reaction of the Broadway audience was identical to that of a television situation-comedy audience.

    Letts is a purveyor of clichés; he is not a thoughtful or imaginative man. He assembled “August: Osage County” with scissors, cutting snippets from various plays and television comedies, and pasting them together. Is cutting and pasting the same thing as writing?

    At bottom, Letts is simply a troubled weirdo—as his photo demonstrates, in spades—and it is somehow fitting that audiences instinctively respond to his work as mere television situation comedy, the genre that most closely matches Letts’s script.