Okay, maybe not ever, but one of the most extraordinary in recent memory. Last Tuesday night I had the privilege of attending my second Broadway opening night, special thanks to Noah. It was thrilling to be able to attend; especially given the precarious situation the stagehand’s strike thrust upon this unknown play, without a name cast and a recognizable creative team. Thank God, the show is here. And unlikely to ever go away and for that we should be incredibly thankful.
My first ordeal came with the question, “what do I wear?” That was easily assuaged by a trip to the mall, abandoning my usual earth tones for a classier black and charcoal grey combination. Second of all, I had a trimming accident, so off came my beard of four years. Well, regardless, I looked like sex on legs. (Seriously).
Anyway, my point. The opening night was star-studded, much more than I think anyone would have realized: Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch, Marian Seldes, Alan Rickman, David Schwimmer, John Krasinski, Anthony Edwards, Christine Ebersole, Tim Daly, Zeljko Ivanek, Duncan Sheik, Ana Gasteyer, Laurie Metcalf, Melina Kanakaredes, Gary Sinise, Kate Walsh, Tom Hulce, Tamara Tunie, Kelli O’Hara, Penny Fuller, Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale, Marsha Mason, among a slew of others that I’m probably forgetting at this point. Anyway, as exhilarating as it was being a King of the Hill wallflower in the lobby watching the glitterati arrive, the opening night experience itself was overshadowed by the masterwork onstage at the Imperial.
It’s hard to describe what is destined to be a contemporary classic. To see a play that returns to an older form (the first original three act play on Broadway in how long?) yet managed to infuse the drama with such a sense of humor and relatability. Every family has its dysfunctions, yet this one manages to pinpoint them all without ever becoming too absurd for its own good. The plot revolves around a family returning to its homestead in Oklahoma after the patriarch goes missing. The reunion unearths a slew of dirty laundry, grudges and secrets, led by the matriarch Violet, suffering from cancer of the mouth (oh how fitting), and in a stunning breakthrough performance (for a grandmother) by the Chicago-based actress Deanna Dunagan. Violet is constantly shifting between her natural no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is persona and her drug-addled incoherence; a volatile combination that helps her to force out family skeletons and lead them in a rousing cakewalk through the second and third act. It’s hard to describe what it is about her performance; the command of the stage, the ease at which she’s created her character or the fact that Vi is a cross between Mary Tyrone and Martha, with a dash of Regina Giddens thrown in for good measure. Also standing out is Amy Morton as her mother’s daughter, Barbara, who ends up trying to strangle her mother when things get out of hand and is slowly turning into her. Watching the two pitted against each other is one of the theatrical highlights of the year. Dunagan dominated the second; Morton, the third. It really feels though, that Barbara is the lead, but boy is Violet a good time. And in that one wonders if they’ll compete against each other for the Best Actress awards this season. I think Dunagan’s Theatre World award should be engraved today to save the time.
For what it’s worth, the entire ensemble is extraordinary. Never once do you question these actors as a family (all but two veterans of the Steppenwolf production that played earlier this year in Chicago). I don’t want to give plot points away because the entire arc of the play is filled with little surprises and unexpected revelations. (And hell, if you want to know, see the damned thing). I will say this: the second act possesses some of the finest contemporary writing I’ve ever seen. The final line of the second act had a reaction unlike any I’ve ever witnessed at a drama; the audience was still cheering after the lights had come up for intermission. Think of the play as though Eugene O’Neill had been asked to write Arrested Development. (The midwestern setting is more reminiscent of Bill Inge than O’Neill, but that’s besides the point). The put-downs and family arguments and incredibly awkward situations that arise are incredibly humorous, but the work ends with an incredibly sobering punch. There is talk of the awards Pulitzer and Antoinette Perry for this esteemed production (which received practically unanimous raves; the lone hold-out was that out of step Jacques Le Sourd from the Journal News), and is currently only scheduled to run through March 9. If you have brains, get your hands on tickets immediately as you will not want to miss this landmark achievement.
I know I probably should have written some brilliant critical commentary on the piece, but we have eternity to judge the piece with that ethereal lens. For now, just see this magnanimous opus. (The fastest three hours and 20 minutes I’ve spent at a play).