Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, reportedly one of the most ambitious and exciting new American dramas to come down the pike in a long time, is bound for Broadway. Hooray! I recently had dinner with Scott Morfee, who runs Barrow Street Theatre and brought over Letts’ previous works, Killer Joe and Bug, and he raved about A:OC. Morfee could be the last Off-Broadway commercial producer in this town with guts and taste to match. Thanks to him, the Civilians’ brainy, touching Gone Missing is enjoying a long run at Barrow Street.
I can’t wait to see Letts’ play.
But wait, what’s this Charles Isherwood wrote in the Times on August 13, 2007… After comparing the play’s pill-popping, bile-spewing matriarch to Albee’s Martha, O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone and Williams’ Amanda Wingfield, he puts on the brakes toward the end of an otherwise enthusiastic review. After a few good strokes of the chin, quoth The Ish:
Mr. Letts is as yet more a skillful entertainer than a true visionary or a dramatic poet. August: Osage County is a ripsnorter full of blistering, funny dialogue, acid-etched characterizations and scenes of no-holds-barred emotional combat, but I would not say it possesses the penetrating truth or the revelatory originality of a fully achieved work of art.
Spoken like a true cultural arbiter. Still, let’s pause and rescan. The play “does not possess the penetrating truth or revelatory originality of a fully achieved work of art.” Really? So…it’s not art? Is it at least a fully achieved piece of entertainment? What is the difference? If, in 50 years, no one has written a large-scale family drama that is better than A:OC, will it be upgraded to the ranks of fully-achieved art (FAWA)? Is Isherwood speaking as a newspaper reviewer of 2007 or a cultural commissar from the distant future? Where does he park his time machine?
I wonder how often Isherwood’s Tony-named colleagues—Scott and Tommasini—review a new movie or symphony and go out of their way to assure the reader: Well it’s no Citizen Kane or Beethoven’s Ninth, but pretty good! Do reviewers in other fields even bother with this sort of hierarchizing humbug? What proprietary, red-velvet-rope-fondling arrogance. What laughable, bean-counting, pompous equivocation. Such antique snobbery is beneath even pre-ratatouille-munching Anton Ego (and I say that as a Neo-Snob). In closing: If you ever catch me issuing such vapid, flatulent dicti, kick me in my fat ass.
Unless, of course, I’m putting my personal stank on a genuine FAWA.