Maybe the prolonged and confounding stagehands strike had Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton all corked up and ready to burst. Maybe they're mindful that Broadway's cavernous Imperial Theatre housed "Les Miserables" for 13 years and is best suited to the transmission of epic emotion. But most likely, they're just playing the right characters at the right moment in the best new play to emerge from Chicago in at least a generation.For whatever the traumas of the genesis and the exodus of this remarkable Steppenwolf Theatre production of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," to experience this agonized mother-and-daughter duo in a Broadway theater is to sit in the face of a howling prairie gale of self-ameliorating dysfunction.
They rage. They scream. They self-destruct. Just as they did in Chicago last summer, when Letts' play had its world premiere at the Steppenwolf under Anna D. Shapiro's blistering direction. And they do it all with such an organic, hyperkinetic rush of theatrical intensity, you truly could smell the unease Sunday night in those urbane members of the New York audience who thought they'd escaped their crazy families in the flat-and-terrifying hinterlands of these United States that New Yorkers try so damn hard to ignore, if only by vacationing in Europe.
Well, guess what. They're ba-a-ck. You're just paying a hundred bucks now to sit in the orchestra and see them destroy each other. And it's better to stay a few rows away from the kind of poison that can destroy your whole life.
"Oh, my God," one kept hearing from heads blown back in seats.
Steppenwolf has done this New York trick before, of course, when Gary Sinise and John Malkovich first went East with "True West" (1982) and established their emerging Chicago theater as the leading brand in acting from the gut. But that was off-Broadway and with a known playwright, Sam Shepard, who had only a peripheral connection to the company.
And, incredibly, it was 25 years ago. New Yorkers had forgotten. Well, their memories just got one hell of a jog.
Moreover, this "August" is a different deal. This is Broadway. The leading actors are women. As the story of three middle-age sisters forced to return to their parents' Oklahoma home after their father's disappearance, this is the commissioned work of an in-sync house playwright Steppenwolf never had before. "August" won't confirm the Steppenwolf mystique so much as retool it.
Letts has written a grand, old three-act family drama of epic scale and ambition, replete with numerous nods to Eugene O'Neill and Lillian Hellman. He begins his play with the disappearance of Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts), a drunken academic. His three adult daughters -- played by Morton, Sally Murphy and Marianne Mayberry -- return home to their pill-popping mother, Violet (Dunagan), to try and figure out why Beverly is gone. Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed) is there too. And these women all come hitched to either an immoral or a dysfunctional man. Or both.
Morton's Barbara is married to Bill (Jeff Perry), who is having an affair with one of his students. Mayberry's Karen has bottom-fed her way to Steve (Brian Kerwin), a real estate agent who likes teenage girls. Murphy's sweet Ivy keeps it in the family, craving the gentleness of Mattie Fae's son, Little Charles, played by Ian Barford. And Mattie Fae's good-hearted husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan), can do nothing to stop these women from trying to destroy each other, even as they try to find their missing father. He has left no clues -- other than hiring a Native American woman named Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) to take care of the place. She mostly sits up in the attic, staring down at the hapless white-bread interlopers.
Letts is hardly the first dramatist to observe that we all turn into our parents. But even if the conflicts seem traditional, their scale, expression and intensity are not. And Letts has also penned an outrageously funny and shrewdly arch play for a generation accustomed to self-aware gothic shockers at the multiplex. This thing lasts three hours 15 minutes and holds this massive Broadway joint for every moment. It is a very good -- nay, a great -- modern American play, a fearless fusion of populist theatrics with caustic truths.
Some might argue it's more potboiler than masterpiece. But anyone who dismisses the piece as mere pulpy entertainment is missing its determination to explore the slow death of the atrophied exurban American family. "Dissipation," one of the characters observes, "is much worse than cataclysm."
Aside from the plays of Edward Albee, it's hard to think of a comparably intense dramatic statement that kids should get and stay away from their parents -- genetic connections being no real connection at all. More interesting yet, Letts extends this putrid family petrie dish into America itself. "You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse," Barbara laments in this new version. "But at least it used to have some promise."
The script has now been sharpened rhetorically -- new one-liners emerge. Toward the end, a re-ordering of scenes (Barbara's sister now leaves before her husband) means that the familial revelations no longer come so thick and fast that they pull you out of the play's reality. It's a shrewd edit, and one that pushes Morton's Barbara much more to the fore.
If you saw the play at Steppenwolf, you saw it in a more natural and pleasingly intimate milieu -- the physical production doesn't work as well in New York. But the acting has only deepened and intensified, with the two re-cast roles (Kerwin replaces Rick Snyder, and Madeleine Martin assumes the teenage role of Barbara and Bill's dangerously precocious daughter) working very well. And although hesitant in Chicago, Guerrero and Dennis Letts now fire on all cylinders, energizing the earlier sections.
But while Murphy, Reed, Guinan and Perry are all even better now, and while rumor has it that Letts will be able to sell this script to Hollywood for a small fortune, this New York moment belongs to Dunagan and Morton, who spit out their venom and their insecurities -- and who will make their names.
"August: Osage County" is at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York from April 29. Contact www.augustonbroadway.com or Telecharge.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun