Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Must Miss

I make a few treks every year to New York to see plays.

Last weekend I saw August: Osage County. If you google this play you will see that it is a hands down favorite to win the Tony this year for best play. I don't when a new American play has been so celebrated. By Tracy Letts, the play started in Chicago, and then was transplanted to New York with the original cast mostly intact. I had such high expectations for the play, which makes me think of another verymarkmccormick axiom about theater (and movies ususally): the amount of enjoyment you get out of a cultural experience is very often (not always, just often) inversely proportionate to your expectations. That is, if you think think you're really, really going to love a movie or book or play it will often fail to live up to your expectations, but just as often you can be dragged to something kicking and screaming only to find out: hey, I'm having a great time. I don't know why this is.

The play is an epic length exploration of a highly, highly dysfunctional family in Oklahoma. There's not a problem this family does not have: drug addiction, alcoholism, cancer, estrangement, secrets, lies, violence, money, and even (watch out! just when you thought things were looking up) incest.

The play centers around the mother, Violet Weston. This role has been described as a new "great role" along the lines of Martha in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire. This role is like any great diva role you can think of, magnified to cartoonish proportions. She's a monster. If you like dragons, Tasmanian Devils, or the human embodiment of Hurricane Katrina, this is the play for you.

So I had high expectations, very high, and so it should have been no surprise that I absolutely loathed the play. I cannot remember having a more unpleasant experience in the theater, or my expectations so dashed. I was absolutely astounded at how the people around me were laughing at the production, which I found professional and glossy, sure, but the script left me absolutely cold. And so unfunny (one line--the mother berating the daughter for dressing in a pantsuit toa funeral: "you look a magicians assistant"--and the audience guffawed. Huh? Sitcom humor at best!!)

The characters were insufferable, and the play offered no redemption at all and not single likable character (really, I will not be moved from this point--the characters were really quite literally hopeless, with the possible exception of the Native American maid Johnna, the nephew Little Charles and his cousin/sister/lover Ivy). I suppose I was expecting (from reviews) a combination of Caroline, or Change (a Tony Kushner musical that I loved) and Six Feet Under: that is, dysfunction made meaningful, but what it was instead was some bad post-modern Tennessee Williams (or Faulkner) with possibly one decent brooding theme ("I've got the Plains. . . ") of how we've raped the (Mother) land and must find our way back (thus the final, forced, Pieta image).

If you're going to New York, don't see this, see Spring Awakening.

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