By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"This situation is fraught." It is, it is, it is. August: Osage County, the Steppenwolf production finishing its two-week run at the Winspear Opera House, is a festival of fraught-ness. Tracy Letts' prize-laden three-act masterpiece finds the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, about as frightfully fraught as any family ought to get.
Not since the Tyrones of Long Day's Journey, or George and Martha of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, have characters on a stage revealed so many cold, ugly and bitterly funny truths about one another. As therapists say, a family is only as sick as its secrets, and in Letts' second-act dinner scene, the sisters, daughters and brothers-in-law of the extended Weston clan blurt out the worst of theirs. Daddy's an alcoholic and probable suicide, Mama's a staggering pill-head and has cancer, first cousins are sleeping together, a pedophile's in the house and somebody's parentage comes into question. And that's before dessert.
(It's an aunt, Mattie Fay, played by Libby George, who makes the "fraught" observation. And at that point, she doesn't know the half of it.)
August: Osage County continues through January 24 at the Winspear Opera House. Call 214-880-0202.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor continues through February 7 at WaterTower Theatre, Addison. 972-450-6232.
August: Osage County plays out its scorched-earth philosophy of family dynamics in three hours and 20 minutes of highly charged emotional confrontations. There are quiet scenes in dark rooms between two characters and one wild group tantrum that crescendos into slapping, hair pulling and invectives delivered in screech-owl shrieks. The highs and lows, orchestrated by a playwright who's listened closely to how families fight, turn the decline of the Westons into a symphony of dysfunction.
Through it all, the Westons and their kinfolk remain painfully, brilliantly real. Letts knows these awful people. We all do, if we're brave enough to admit it.
This play hits home so effectively because the flawless ensemble acting of the touring cast brings the epic scope of August: Osage County down to human scale. Clattering up and down the zigzag of stairs in the parents' three-story house—the set's a giant open-sided dollhouse designed by Todd Rosenthal—the Weston sisters et al make us believe in who and where they are. We can smell the dust and feel the oppressive heat of the place they grew up in. With all the windows sealed shut and no air conditioning running in August, it's no wonder the situation becomes a powder keg.
Lighting the fuse is Violet Weston, the pharmaceutically altered mother played by 82-year-old Oscar winner Estelle Parsons. Sometimes mumbling incoherently, sometimes roaring like an open blast furnace, Violet would make Medea tremble. "Y'see these little blue babies?" Violet says, holding her pill bottle up to those assembled at the dinner table. "These are my best fucking friends, and they never let me down. Try to get 'em away from me and I'll eat you alive."
Parsons, in a performance of seismic ferocity, is equally matched by the women playing her daughters. As Ivy, the old maid librarian worn down from caring for aged parents, Angelica Torn (Rip's daughter) wears her desperate loneliness like a shroud. Playing oldest daughter Barbara, who's more like Violet than she'd care to acknowledge, the remarkable Shannon Cochran becomes the one we root for. Her character's tested the most by the betrayals that pile up around her and Cochran's reeling reactions in her flowing black dress make her look like a redheaded tornado tearing through the house.
Youngest daughter Karen, played by the bumptious Amy Warren, is the giddy burst of sunshine amid the gloom. But given the pervy proclivities of her tag-along fiancée Steve (Laurence Lau), her day for disappointment will come soon enough.
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, August: Osage County has racked up award after award, including a Pulitzer and a Tony for the Broadway run and recent nods on critics' top 10 lists from coast to coast for the touring production. Letts' previous plays, Bug and Killer Joe, both of which have had killer-good stagings at The MAC, seem minor now in comparison to this magnum opus. In Osage County are characters worth loving and hating, dialogue that's get-down funny and plot twists shocking, tragic and terribly satisfying. Make it a family night out.
Seems sacrilegious to mention Neil Simon on the same page as August: Osage County. But there was a time when American theater was in love with the human joke machine behind The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite. So what if Broadway audiences ignored last year's short-lived revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs? There are still good reasons to see good productions of Simon's best work.
And Addison's WaterTower Theatre has a feisty production of one of Simon's really good plays, the 1993 autobiographical comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Set inside the same 30 Rock where Liz Lemon now toils, but in the writers' room of a 1953 network comedy hour, the play draws on Simon's experiences as a young joke-maker on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. The characters are lightly fictionalized versions of Caesar and of Simon's writing colleagues Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Selma Diamond and Mel Tolkin.
With the recent dust-up involving Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien over that bit of late-night real estate called The Tonight Show, Simon's 23rd Floor has new relevance, earning even more chuckles when its central character, TV star Max Prince (Brian Gonzales), bashes NBC for jerking his show around. When the peacock network assigns an "observer" to police Max's staff, he explodes. "If he's REALLY observant," Max says, "he's gonna observe me getting upset! And then he's gonna observe me very quietly, and very politely, putting my fist through his fucking face!"
In the play, the real war between writers and network suits is over political satire. It's the McCarthy era and Max wants to skewer Senator Joe, which could put him and his writers on the dreaded blacklist.
WaterTower's got a hot, fast cast for this one, directed by Terry Martin. What a treat to watch Gonzales (the star last fall of Lyric Stage's Road to Qatar) throw himself into the role of Max Prince with more of Jackie Gleason's heft than Caesar's sly twinkle. His timing of Neil Simon's punch lines is impeccable and in the brief bit where Max becomes Marlon Brando in a spoof of that other Caesar—Julius—he exquisitely overdoes the whispery voice and smacking lip curl of the '50s' most famous method actor.
Supporting Gonzales as Max's band of merry madcaps are Regan Adair as a suave Ivy League-er uttering droll bon mots as he works the Times crossword; Brian Hathaway as manically funny skirt-chaser Milt; Ted Wold as the ersatz Woody Allen, whining about imagined ailments; Ginger Goldman, quick as a snapping turtle as the lone gal on the writing staff; John Daniel Pszyk as the Russian-born head writer; Erik Archilla as the Irishman among Jews; and young Daniel Fredrick as the gangly new kid (basically Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show). Brandy McClendon has her moment to shine as Helen, Max's comedically tone-deaf secretary.
With comic chaos escalating scene by scene, 23rd Floor is a definite mood elevator.