Review: August: Osage County, National Theatre

Saturday 6 December 2008

august-osage-countyfz6mif1Phew! What a lot of relief for the Whingers. On three counts.

After watching some actors being not entirely convincingly American in Neil LaBute’s In A Dark Dark House last week, it came as a real treat to see 13 genuine Americans (one of them genuinely genuine -a Native American) shipped across the pond for the National’s import of Mr Tracy Letts‘ Broadway hit August: Osage County, to play, well, Americans.

But more importantly what a relief to see a title punctuated with care and attention. The Whingers are always delighted to see a rather lovely and robust colon. Mr Letts clearly knows something Mr LaBute doesn’t: punctuation. We are now hoping that a play be written which incorporates the subjunctive in its title.

Thirdly, the Whingers can confidently now make mention of the play at a dinner party or while in witty conversation with an off-licence manager without mumbling or shortening it to “August” as they know it’s pronounced owe-sidge; previously they had been rhyming it with “sausage”.

Phil had been gagging to see this since the Whingers arrived in New York on the day the Broadway strike started which put a spanner in the works somewhat. Andrew wasn’t so convinced and in his usual Cassandrian way kept harping on about the running time of three and a half hours and how it it would all end in tears.

It didn’t begin too promisingly. Heavy-drinking poet Beverley Weston (Chelcie Ross), father of the dysfunctional Weston clan sits in the study of his three story doll’s house style set interviewing Indian Native American Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) for the position of housekeeper.

His opening line quotes T S Eliot’s observation that “life is overlong” We know it’s by Eliot as he’s mentioned; the Whingers aren’t scholars and in case you have any doubts, Phil perked up considerably when Beverly also name-checked John Barrowman but sadly this turned out to be someone called John Berryman not the testicle airing Torchwood star.*

Anyway, back to “life is overlong”. With three and a half hours looming ahead of him Andrew visibly winced; the last thing he needed reminding of was anything being overlong. Indeed, he was sure that Eliot would revise his aphorism were he in Andrew’s seat. Plus the mention of Eliot brought unpleasant memories of last weeks The Family Reunion bubbling to the surface.

Indeed, August:Osage County turns into another family reunion of sorts. Beverley disappears and as a result the extended Weston family are reunited to support the pill-popping, monstrous matriarch Violet (Deanna Dunagan, left) who is suffering from literal and metaphorical cancer of the mouth.

By the first interval (there are two) the Whingers were somewhat underwhelmed. Steppenwolf‘s A:OC has been heralded as such a masterpiece ,”one of the greatest American plays for years”, that they were expecting something rather, well, unexpected. They certainly hadn’t expected this.

It turned out that the first act had been mostly preamble and the thing went up several notches in the second act as the characters find their stride and – this being principally about the women in the family – there is a lot of fine actressing going on as the family secrets start tumbling out.

We particularly admired second Osage Tony winner Rondi Reed (right) as the blousey Mattie Fay (who Phil thought resembled Harvey Fierstein‘s turn as Edna Turnblad).

As Barbara Fordham, the most prominent of the three daughters, Amy Morton(left) is excellent but saddled with a heavy-handed speech near the end about the state of America which featured “dissipation is much worse than cataclysm”, “this experiment”, “hubris” and other words and phrases bordering on the Eliotine.

But the performances are first rate and one character (Desperate Housewives actor Gary Cole) wears luxuriant hair to rival Sir Trevor Nunns and gives a standout performance of its own.

Some of the casting is strange: Sally Murphy’s character is supposed to be 45 looks  far too young although she is in fact 46.

The funniest scene is the post-funeral dinner but sadly it is so awkwardly staged that we couldn’t see any of the actors’ faces. Perhaps the director took the idea of “blocking” too literally.

But Phil was tempted to pick up his food on stage thesis again: there’s lots of food consumed and he was thrilled when a casserole ended up on the floor. But it turned out to be the coldest, driest casserole Phil’s ever seen (and he’s eaten at Andrew’s a few times) so the mopping up was easily achieved.

Had it not been for the build-up and praise heaped on the play the Whingers might have emerged more impressed. But judging by the response at the end the Whingers missed something, punters were ovating all over the place, but then there were loads of Americans in the house (who ovate for everything). Wasn’t this supposed to be our chance to see it? Perhaps they were worried about DVT after the long haul and just needed to stretch their legs . Some even “whooped”, you’d think Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson had just entered the room.

A:OC ticked many of the Whingers boxes: very black comedy, sharp humour, a hideously addled and scabrous Joan Crawford-style monster at its heart, magnificently cruel put downs and some laugh out loud comedy of the grotesque. But it  never became more than the sum of its parts. It seems strange how un-shocking a show can be which includes suicide, drugs, incest and sexual assault on a 14 year old.

Sadly for him (and perhaps unwittingly; who can say?) Mr Letts has committed the ultimate Whingers sin of writing a play that comes down after the bars have called last orders. Strange that while the word “economy” currently seems to be on everybody’s lips it has totally passed by Mr Letts. Our advice to him: cut the opening scene with the father, ditch the second interval bring it in at less than three hours; preferably two and a half. Who knows, you might end up with a hit?

Mr Hytner’s American experiment is interesting but, although August: Osage County is frequently entertaining and engaging, it is over-long, over-rated and over here.**


* Google “John Berryman” and it’ll come up with three sites for the poet then say “See results for: John Barrowman” which made Phil feel so much better.

** The National has made much of the American nature of the show to the extent of having a US voice nagging you to switch off your “cellphones” whatever they are. Their “immersion” theatre did not however extend to giving everyone a free programme.

11 Responses to “Review: August: Osage County, National Theatre”

  1. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Good to see Trevor Nunn’s hair getting a name check at last – but where was his apostrophe? Stones and glass houses, Whingers…

  2. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    P.S. Is that Sir Trevor’s dandruff cascading across your site?

  3. sandown Says:

    The correct quote from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” is:

    Life is very long

    There is no full stop; just take it or leave it. I do not know whether the character in the play is mis-quoting the line, or whether The Whingers are to blame.

    But whoever it was should be taken out and shot.

  4. What is this? Pedants Corner?

    Or Pedants’ Corner?

  5. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Shouldn’t that be a colon after your first question?

  6. mannyfarber Says:

    I saw it tonight and I too was underwhelmed by the first half an hour. Then it picks up. But once you’re back after the interval, you realise how all that set up was necessary and the final two hours fly by.

    They should’ve put it in the Olivier, where it’s a sharper rake and the stage has the width to accommodate the set (which looks almost identical to the broadway one). But I must say it didn’t ruin it for me at all.

  7. Devon Says:

    Thanks for the thorough review. I’m from Chicago and have seen some excellent products at Steppenwolf, so this one has been on my radar… but at 3 1/2 hours the play has to be stellar. Otherwise, edit!

  8. pb Says:

    saw this last night…. thought it was really, really good. best new play i’ve seen in a long time. felt it lost it’s way in a couple of moments in the third act, but really wasn’t concerned about the length…. lots of really brilliantly written scenes and some fantastic performances… so many interesting characters as well.

    one slight issue: the audience seemed to find some really brutal lines hilarious… i kinda wished there wasn’t so much laughter. but maybe that’s just me being miserable

  9. Julia Says:

    I’m slightly relieved that I’m not the only person who misheard ‘John Berryman’ as ‘John Barrowman…’

  10. Brian Finch Says:

    I very rarely walk out of a play but after two acts my party had really had enough – it was just dull and irritating and badly acted. We all find the acclaim for this play puzzling. The actresses believe shrieking synonymous with acting – the blousy one was only funny in the way of a pantomime dame but a lot more irritating. The play is immensely derivative: Tennessee Williams’ work is still fresher and better written. But the set is fun – very much the star of the show.

  11. Federico Says:

    Hi there, I’m from Argentina and I’ve just seen the Argentine version. A great play, fantastic actors and one of the most impressive stage houses I’ve ever seen. 3 hours and a half may be rather tiring, that’s true, but the intensity of some of the scenes will stay in my mind forever.

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