The young Thomas Mann learned a lesson about overindulgence when his father took him to a patisserie and told him he could stuff his face with as many cream puffs as he liked. "He led us into a sweet smelling Paradise, and let the dream become reality," the German author wrote in his diaries, "and we were amazed how quickly we reached the limit of our desire, which we believed to be infinite."
I was reminded of this anecdote as I dragged myself back to my apartment just shy of midnight the other evening after sitting through the excess that is Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. It wasn't the length of this soap-opera–like domestic drama (three and a half hours including two intermissions) that left me feeling I'd been deep-fried, rolled in powdered sugar, and served up with whipped cream. I was simply worn out by the soul-numbing force with which the playwright, director, and cast shoved this completely hackneyed story of human indulgence down my throat. The experience made me want to go on a strict diet of minimalist puppet theater and mime.
Premiered in 2007 by Chicago's lauded Steppenwolf Theatre, August: Osage County isn't your average touring Broadway show. It isn't a musical. The sets don't revolve. And unless you count the play's trio of loud-mouthed sisters, there are no chorus girls. Yet far from being hampered by these "shortcomings," the play has done phenomenally well. It won a slew of awards, including a Pulitzer and a Tony. Audiences flocked to see the play at London's National Theatre last year. The Weinstein Company is working on a movie adaptation.
It's easy to see what draws audiences to Letts' high-stakes drama, which depicts a particularly disruptive period in a large Oklahoma family's life following the disappearance of its hard-drinking patriarch, Beverly Weston. Here's where I agree with the popular vote: Some of the performances in director Anna D. Shapiro's punctiliously executed production are deeply engrossing. The touring troupe doesn't include a single member of the original Chicago or New York cast, which starred the playwright's father, Dennis Letts, as Beverly, and Deanna Dunagan as his drug-addicted, erratic spouse, Violet. Yet the touring actors all embody their parts as if the author had written the roles specifically for them. Chief among these is the formidable old-timer Estelle Parsons, who slurs, swaggers, and slashes her way through the play as if she's a pirate on very potent painkillers. Violet has all the best lines, and Parsons delivers them like a great orchestra playing the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. All growling bass and ominous tonality, she's on the attack.
The other reason people get sucked into August: Osage County is the storytelling. I don't want to spoil the climax by summarizing the play's many predictable twists and turns. Besides, the program notes helpfully include a family tree illustrating the relationships among the members of the Aeschylean Weston family and their various hangers-on. Let's just say that regarding the denouement, regrettably, the popular vote and I must part.
Letts' drama comes across like a bloated Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill play, but with more shit going down and much less depth. Over the course of this long, long, long day's journey into night, the playwright piles on the thrills. He uses incest, infidelity, child molestation, addiction, violence, dispossession, and several other tired devices as an excuse for a plot. The drug-addled mother, the wounded children, and the absent father are all staples of the classic 20th-century American drama. It's tempting to think that Letts might be making some kind of comment about the genesis of this country's theatrical aesthetic and its reflection of the rotten state of society by so explicitly reverting to old tropes and presenting the many faces of human decrepitude in surfeit. But if that's the case, his meaning is obscure.
The play has the unfortunate effect of overstuffing us with its overbearing storyline, while at the same time leaving us unfulfilled. Letts misses enormous opportunities to plumb the profound. For instance, the gentle, shadowy presence of the family's live-in housekeeper, a young, hard-up Native American woman by the name of Johnna Monevata, begs for development. Johnna (played with sensitivity and grace by DeLanna Studi) is an outsider in more ways than one. But we never find out what drives her to stay with this godawful family besides financial need, and the playwright offers no commentary on her status as a hard-working native in the employment of a dissolute white family in a postcolonial world. Throwing in a few quotes from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" and references to Emily Dickinson don't seem to provide the metaphoric depth necessary to lift the play beyond mere gladiator sport. Add to this the intermittent shouting and screaming of the actors and Todd Rosenthal's ungainly naturalistic set depicting the inside of the Westons' house, which leaves little to the visual imagination, and you have a bad case of boredom on your hands. In short, it's all too much.
What does "all too much" really mean today? Thomas Mann knew when to curtail the cream. But these days, our desire for more frequently overrides common sense. "Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess," wrote psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in a recent article for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. "If the 20th century was, in the title of Eric Hobsbawm's book, the Age of Extremes, then the 21st century looks like being the Age of Excess." Ah. Now I understand why August: Osage County is such a stampeding success.