Theatre yesterday and today



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Well, it’s August. And if you are anywhere in the United States this weekend and dealing with the stifling heat, my heart goes out to you. I spent this past Friday exclusively indoors (with no air conditioning) that was as oppressive as any day I can recall in my lifetime. It made me miserable.

Though unfair to blame an entire month on a few days, this foul, fetid August forced me to look for ways to conjure up images and feelings that would take me to a better place. It wound up taking me to a better month — December of 2007, and a different mindset of August altogether. This is when I saw a Wednesday matinee performance of August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, that was then in previews on Broadway. Word from Chicago where it premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company had been more than laudatory: it was worshipful. A new work was descending upon us exhibiting a sprawling cast, with ensemble acting of the highest order, from a renowned company that had been importing productions to New York for nearly twenty-five years with often dazzling results. But nothing which came from Steppenwolf before this one quite prepared critics and audiences alike for August. What I felt while watching this three-act, three hour-plus drama was what I imagined might have been what audiences experienced at Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its original Broadway production in 1962.

A rarity: two marquees for the same show directly next door to each other.

The play is set in a specific place at a specific time, but Letts titling it August was no arbitrary choice. Words long associated with this month were the ones critics would use to describe the play itself: scorching, burning, scalding and searing. The play is imprinted on my mind in a way that makes it hard to believe I first saw it nine years ago. The impression it left on me is so indelible, that although I know it wasn’t yesterday, nine years seems impossible. The dysfunctional family it depicted, a mixture of overly broad and exaggerated types alongside deceivingly quiet and subtle ones, came off as genuine, with no artifice or artificiality. The subtext that raged beneath all said and done made every outburst believable; as fresh and spontaneous as when they occur in real life. Credit the play’s director, Anna D. Shaprio guiding a cast to great reviews and Tony Awards (actresses Deana Dunagan and Rondi Reed; Shapiro herself and Letts, who in addition, also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama).

The Weston family are a hard bunch to spend three hours with (another thing it has in common with Virginia Woolf). Uncomfortably familiar, the Westons are no less fascinating by virtue of their viciousness. In fact, it enhances their stage worthiness via a heightened reality. In the wrong hands, these characters and their conniving, self-serving ways might not be just ugly, but dull. Which brings me to the unfortunate film version that was released in 2013. Featuring an all-star cast of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Sam Shepard (among others), the only place to go was up, right? As it turned out, the exact opposite was the case. Even with Tracy Letts writing the adaptation (mainly trimming it to a more acceptable running time on film), the result was flat, unmoving and worst of all, unfunny. Though I may have described the play with adjectives like scalding and scorching, it was also wickedly funny. The film missed out on practically all the humor, resulting in a turgid and unconvincing . You know something must have really gone awry when Meryl Streep turns in a performance that is both self-aware and off-the-mark. The blame must be laid at the film’s director, John Wells, a television writer and director with only one feature to his credit prior to being chosen to helm August by the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, someone with usually better judgment in such hirings.

On stage, with so much happening, it was exciting to watch the play and pick out who you might like to follow in a given scene. In a sense, what Letts and Shapiro gave its audience was unusual free reign to follow the play as they saw fit. But on film, with Wells in charge of where the camera went, and then cutting the film to highlight whomever he specifically wanted front and center, we were locked into his vision of every scene (and it shouldn’t be a surprise that he usually favored Streep and Roberts, much to the detriment of other actors and the characters they played). And though this is a director’s right, they had better have the taste and distinction of someone like a Mike Nichols. Almost all of Wells’s choice were disastrous. The film was at times incomprehensible, morbid and joyless. Though it didn’t receive the worst reviews of the year, its box office was nonexistent and I doubt anyone will ever look back kindly upon it. Whereas it won’t surprise me at all, if the play receives a first-class revival in a few years at one of Broadway’s finer regional companies such as Lincoln Center Theatre, the Roundabout or the Manhattan Theatre Club.

And if the photo above is a puzzler, the reason for the two marquees directly next door to one another, was that it was taken during the brief time that August was still playing at the Imperial, but was about to take up residence at the Music Box, due to an impending booking at the Imperial (Billy Elliot) necessitating the move. Not known for housing straight plays, the Imperial was the best theatre available at the time August was scheduled for Broadway, which at first was advertised as a limited engagement. With business going well and the sudden availability of the Music Box (a new Aaron Sorkin play, The Farnsworth Invention, closed quickly after a hundred performances), August’s producers took advantage of the smaller theatre’s more intimate and appropriate setting (as well as having 400 less seats than the Imperial to fill each night). This helped August to play to smaller, but fuller houses, and helped to extend its run for another fourteen months. By the time it closed, it had racked up 648 performances, not bad for a straight play with a cast of thirteen.

If only by writing this I felt a bit cooler. But you can’t have everything.

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