by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"August: Osage County" By Tracey Letts
Presented by The Steppenwolf Theater Company
Imperial Theater 249 West 54th Street
Reviewed February 1, 2008 by Margaret Croyden

What were the critics thinking? They called "August: Osage County" "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years." That from The New York Times. It has always been impolite to criticize one's colleagues (even if you hate them) or disparage their reviews. But this time, I am breaking the rule and offering my own version of what I saw.

Not only is this play not the best ever to hit Broadway, but one of the worst. Let's start with the plot. A dysfunctional family who all hate each other meet in their mother's house for their father's funeral. The matriarch is a sick, old, nasty, mother of three sick, nasty daughters--all of whom either hate each other and seem ready to commit murder. In fact their father has committed suicide at the beginning of the act (and luckily for this actor he has no more to do), and although the family often refer to him, his problem is never defined. But living with this brood was enough to drown himself--which he did.

As the play opens a cancer ridden woman is taking pills one after another washed down by plenty of liquor--obviously a sick, angry, bitter, malcontent--a witch in disguise. When her daughters enter, we see they are no better. One has a unfaithful husband, a teacher, who prefers to sleep with his students; their daughter, a sullen teenager who is already on pot. Another arrives with a fiancee who immediately has eyes for the teenager and offers to secure dope for her. The matriarch's rambunctious sister with her henpecked husband and finally a silent shy cousin or some sort of relative (very unclear) are also in attendance. All gather for the funeral supper.

Then intermission. In the second act, the play reaches its climax. The family increase their angry, hateful insults, the mother enjoying it the most as she wickedly points out all the faults and shortcomings and terrible lives of her daughters. This all builds up, and reaches a hideous hair pulling fight between mother and daughter. At that, one feels like leaving the theater to get some fresh air, and forget the depressive atmosphere.

The "Times" critic compared this play to Eugene O'Neill's "Long Journey into Night," a poor comparison indeed. O'Neill play has deep emotional underpinnings. He understood the family he created (it was his own) and for all their faults, he empathized with them, even loved them, despite their angry displays and evident failures. The drugged mother was not a witch but a tragic character, the father, though he was a failure, and a stingy money-pinching actor who was afraid of ending up a pauper, was not a villain, but a victim of circumstances. Not that any of them were faultless, but their motives, their outbursts, their miseries were understandable and sympathetic, their predicament could bring the audience to tears. O'Neill had empathy. This author (Tracey Butts) has anger. And that alone is not enough.

So don't expect anything like the brilliant O'Neill from "August". No character in this play is worth caring about, no one has a redeeming feature; it is written in the darkest vein; not a drop of light or self-reflection shines through.

Now for the acting: every scene is a shouting match of vituperation, furious insults, hateful abuse, and ridicule. The director must have decided that the company must shout, screech and scream their anger out, and so they do. The woman play every scene with unpleasant top registers of their voices. No one talks, whispers, or modulates her tone; there is just unintelligible yelling for three and a half hours.

Furthermore what is called one of the best plays on Broadway, is actually derivative of the usual soap opera one has had the misfortune to see. Every nasty human defect has been thrown into the plot: infidelity, dope addiction, child abuse, cancer, alcoholism, paedophilia, divorce, incest, not to speak of a mother from hell.

O. K. if you are willing to sit through an evening of watching abused and abusive people, screaming at each other and then coming to blows, beware. You have been warned.

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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