Happy "August: Osage County" Day!

Mayor Bloomberg has officially proclaimed today “August: Osage County Day” in NYC in honor of its 300th performance, being accorded to today’s matinee.

As per the proclamation, the play has “yielded tremendous cultural and economic benefits for” New York City and has “reaffirmed New York’s proud heritage of welcoming the world’s boldest, most powerful works of art.”

However, the powers that be are cheating a little. According to the tally at ibdb.com today’s matinee is the show’s 282nd, meaning they are counting the 18 previews. There is a reason there is an official opening night. Or is there anymore? Oh well. I’m just truth-telling… 😉

Also here is a great profile on the great Amy Morton who is still giving NY audiences her powerhouse performance as Barbara Weston Fordham in the acclaimed hit (but only for a little while longer, folks. Soon the original cast will be off to London for its UK premiere at the National in the fall).

The quote of the day, from Ms. Morton:

“It’s like when you open up Long Day’s Journey Into Night or some great American play, and you see the original cast listing, and you go, ‘Wow, that must have been something.’ I get to have my name in there! I’m never going to get a part like this again in my life. I mean this in the most positive way: It’s all downhill from here.”

NY Times gives "August" another rave

Charles Isherwood administers yet another rave for the play of the year:


A Fiery New Incarnation of a Monster of a Mother

It’s really not a good idea to mess with Violet Weston, the fire-breathing dragon lady of Pawhuska, Okla., who presides over a feast of family combat in “August: Osage County.” As all who have seen Tracy Letts’s celebrated comedy-drama on Broadway no doubt vividly recall, Violet does not brook much interference when it comes to indulging her favorite pastimes.

Raise an objection to that eviscerating commentary on her daughter’s looks and you are likely to find your own being mercilessly dissected. Delicately suggest that she refrain from airing the family’s dirtiest laundry over dinner and you will be subjected to eyebrow-singeing bursts of invective.

Oh, and don’t even think of getting between Violet and the little bottles of pills she pops like Tic Tacs. That would be a sure way to lose a limb.

Violet is a maternal monster on an outrageous scale, but she is also one of the most spellbinding characters in memory to stalk a Broadway stage. So it is good news to report that Estelle Parsons, the venerable actress who has taken over this demanding role from the Tony Award-winning Deanna Dunagan, has had the good sense not to mess with her much.

All the hallmarks of Violet’s character — the implacable cruelty, the shrill self-pity, the wily manipulation and the will of iron — are present and accounted for in Ms. Parsons’s superb performance. But it is not a facsimile of Ms. Dunagan’s unforgettably astringent approach to the role; Ms. Parsons forges her own path into the tortured darkness of Violet’s drug-addled psyche.

She is a naturally more grandmotherly presence, with her incongruously warm smile and slightly dowdy frame. If Ms. Dunagan was a rattlesnake, Ms. Parsons is more of a snapping turtle. In the Parsons interpretation, Violet takes an almost childlike delight in drawing blood. Glints of pure pleasure dance in her eyes when she sees that a revelation or an insult has hit its target. And yet she almost seems to gape in wonder and surprise at the toads that keep leaping from her mouth. Golly, did I just say that?

In the brief oasis of calm that arrives in the play’s third act, when Violet has emerged from her drug-fueled reign of terror, Ms. Parsons shows us glimpses of the casually affectionate mother overtaken by the vengeful shrew. But when she relates to her three daughters a story that provides a grim portrait of her own savage mother, the utter lack of feeling in her account sends a chill down your spine.

Ms. Parsons has had a long career as an actress in film (“Bonnie and Clyde”) and theater, and has worked frequently as a director too (the semi-staged “Salome” with Al Pacino, seen on Broadway in 2003). She has also taught at the Actors Studio, of which she was the artistic director for five years.

But she has not been seen on Broadway much in recent years — a role in the 2002 revival of “Morning’s at Seven” was her most recent appearance — so her return in this lengthy part in an emotionally draining play is both exciting and almost unexpected. Ms. Parsons is, after all, 80. (Ms. Dunagan cited exhaustion in explaining her decision to take a breather before traveling to London with the show in the fall.)

But just as Violet’s endless reserves of bitterness seem to keep her young, the role’s demands must be inspiring for an actress of any age. The challenge of embodying this complicated, terrifying woman seems to burn away the years; if I didn’t know Ms. Parsons was 80, I would never believe it. I hope she’s having the time of her life. She is certainly giving a performance to remember, one that may prove to be a crowning moment in an illustrious career.

Ms. Parsons is just one of several additions to the cast of “August,” and it is a tribute to the attentive direction of Anna D. Shapiro that the production still has the taut intensity it displayed when it opened in December. The new performers — some imported from the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where the play had its premiere — have been integrated seamlessly into what remains the most accomplished ensemble cast on Broadway.

As Mattie Fae, Violet’s bulldozer of a sister, Molly Regan turns down the volume a notch or two compared with the Tony winner Rondi Reed. But she locates all the wicked humor in Mattie Fae’s tactless needling of her son, Little Charles, now played with affecting simplicity by Jim True-Frost. (Both actors are Steppenwolf members.)

Robert Foxworth exudes a convincing sense of ancient resignation as Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband. His seething rebellion against her brutality is among the punchiest audience-rousing moments. Frank Wood (“Side Man”) slides comfortably into the role of another milquetoasty husband, the philandering spouse of Violet’s oldest daughter, Barbara. And Michael McGuire, who took over the role of Beverly Weston, the doomed patriarch, when the playwright’s father, Dennis Letts, became ill (sadly, he subsequently died), delivers the play’s opening monologue with a fine, weary lyricism.

More good news: the actresses in the roles of the Weston daughters have stayed with the production, lending a sense of continuity. All have subtly improved in the roles. Sally Murphy’s Ivy is more movingly forlorn, but quietly determined too. Mariann Mayberry’s Karen, the youngest and most nakedly needy sister, remains a bright blast of comic relief, safely this side of caricature.

And Amy Morton is simply towering in the all-important role of Barbara, the family anchor whom we watch sinking into cynicism and bitterness under the weight of her father’s death and her family’s disintegration. The colors in the role are all more saturated now — the withering sarcasm, the sense of anguished confusion at her husband’s betrayal, the grim rise to the challenge of her mother’s antagonism. But they are blended so delicately that the resulting portrait is as fine an example of the stage actor’s art as you could ever hope to see.

“August: Osage County” continues at the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200, augustonbroadway.com.

Violet Weston is Alive and Alone and Living in Pawhuska

For the heck of it, I decided to take in August: Osage County again (the Sunday matinee on 6.29), this time to see how the play holds up with replacement cast members. Five of the actors, including Tony-winners Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed, departed the company on Tony Sunday.

It’s sometimes hard to attend a play or musical after a favorite original cast member has left. The actor has worked specifically on the structure and personality of the character, often creating from the bare minimum. Estelle Parsons is now the matriarch Violet Weston, with Robert Foxworth (of TV’s Dynasty and Six Feet Under) as Uncle Charlie, Jim True-Frost as Little Charlie, Tony-winner Frank Wood as Bill and Steppenwolf member Molly Regan as Mattie Fae.

The replacements are all stellar; all fitting in seamlessly with the Weston family unit. The only disappointment lies in Regan’s Mattie Fae. There was something incredibly special in Reed’s characterization, her embodiment of certain lies that provided the audience with an incredibly likable vulgarity. Such lines as “The situation is fraught,” “I’m having a cocktail,” and “It’s my casserole” became special moments for theatregoers. In contrast to Reed’s short, stout physique, Regan is younger, taller, thinner and more of a harradin. She still manages to nail the character in points where it counts, particularly in her revealing final scene in the third act. I’m not saying that she isn’t giving a good performance, but it is in this character, I missed the original performance the most. Foxworth lends his laidback gravitas to Charlie. Wood has a field day with Bill, proving a volatile replacement for Jeff Perry and scene partner for Amy Morton (who is still giving the performance of a career here). True-Frost provided an endearing Little Charles.

Now onto the star turn. Estelle Parsons is a perfect embodiment of Violet Weston. Comparisons to Dunagan’s performance are inevitable; however, Parsons’ characterization is steeped in the text and she is never unfaithful to playwright Letts or director Shapiro. She was the actor I really watched the most throughout the play. With an Oscar and an impressive resume, it’s the first time she’s been on Broadway since the 2002 revival of Mornings at Seven. I’ve got to say, I enjoyed her from start to finish. With a physicality and appearance that defy her 80 years, Parsons dives in head-first into this mammoth part. Though less acerbic than Dunagan, Parsons manages to go on her truth-telling crusade with a headstrong vindictiveness that is ultimately tragic. Where Dunagan was pointedly sardonic and chilly, Parsons is a bit calmer; presenting a deceptively docile exterior, with a treacly sweet smile more venomous than a sprig of holly. She hasn’t quite nailed the second act dinner sequence – she appeared to lose her place during the claw-hammer monologue (with Morton, always the ultimate pro, prompting her back into the scene in a seamless manner, making it all appear as part of the action. Brava, Morton!), but trust me, she’ll get there. Parsons made an interesting choice – she constantly stole glances at Barbara in order to gauge a reaction. She also managed to bring down the house twice with the lines “It speaks” and “Scintillating,” involving Little Charles burst of courage during same sequence. (Let me also say from an acting perspective how spectacularly Parsons listens onstage).

Parsons’ has turned the final five minutes of the play into such a sobering denouement that it hasn’t been before (for me). “Listen, you smug little ingrate,” which was delivered with a viciousness and manic frenzy that was chilling. The audience was numbed most of all by her acting in the final moments, an almost apologetic and soothing calling out of names, during which panic starts to build, and explodes as she realizes no one is left. For the first time, I welled up during “And then you’re gone, and then you’re gone…” – one other thing that happened, and I think it was an accident, but after the blackout, there was one last mournful “and then you’re gone” in the total darkness that just resonated so perfectly, I wish the play always ended like that.

The audience continues to hinge on every word. Their response was nothing short of cacophonous. If you haven’t yet seen this play, get your tickets and go. The play is as strong as ever, and in more than capable hands. I myself can’t wait to see Parsons do it again, to see how she grows into the role.

Violet Weston is still here. And I hope she never invites me for dinner.

"I just zip up me cocktail slacks and get over there and get friggin"

Where does one start when they’ve exhausted all the superlatives in the thesaurus in describing the experience that is August: Osage County? I went to see the Sunday matinee, which also happened to be the final performance for Deanna Dunagan, Rondi Reed, Frances Guinan, Jeff Perry and Ian Barford. That’s got to be surreal. You play your last show and your juggernaut play goes onto definite Tony glory that evening. Then you go home to Chicago. I couldn’t do that; I would have to stay at least a couple of weeks to bask in the post-Tony energy glow, you know? On the otherhand, can you imagine being those actors replacing them at the first post-Tony show? I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes, for certain.

This time around though, I was more taken with Amy Morton’s Barbara than I was with Deanna’s Vi, though I adore both immensely. It’s not that Dunagan’s performance is anything less – she is a fearless performer who’s character provides incredible challenges for any actress, but it’s the discovery that this is, in essence, Barbara’s story. I also noticed that she also leads the company bow – and I think she has slightly more stage time. Tough call really. Both are superlative.

But, oh boy. See this great American play. By all means. See it. I’m sure that Estelle and the new crew will bring their own distinctive yet successful interpretations to the Weston household. The dialogue is so sharp and incisive, the staging crisp and just the fastest and most rewarding three and half hours I’ve spent at the theatre in my life. It’s so refreshing to witness hinging on every word, their genuine shock at the events of the plot. And might I add, not one complaint about the running time. Oh, did I mention I saw Hayley Mills on line? (To which .Roxie responded “Shut up! I love her!”) I hope she enjoyed the show too. You could tell the repeat contingency from certain members of the audience, whose adulation poured out. The dialogue is extraordinarily rich. That second act dinner sequence is one of the most memorable you’ll see in quite a while. The audience reaction for Morton’s act two curtain line received the same stellar ovation it did on opening night – if you’d walked into the theatre blindly as the lights went out, you would have thought there was a musical showstopper going on with the screams of “Bravo!” ringing out. As per my usual, I started the applause – and clapped so hard my hands hurt. In all my years of theatregoing I have never done that before.

I took a friend with me as an early birthday present. We couldn’t even get into the specifics of it, he was that stunned by what he saw. We parted ways on 44th and I headed uptown to Sarah’s Beekman Place on 90th for Lady Iris’ Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza, aka her Tony party.

First of all, there was a red carpet – lit up I might add. With logo art for all the shows around the banisters. Sarah greeted us at the door all dolled up, with her apartment open and ready for all the bloggers and friends who weren’t fortunate enough to be at the awards (ahem, Noah and Steve on Broadway…) and I gotta tell you, I’ve never enjoyed the Tony awards quite like I did this year. I’m still more fond of the Theatre World awards, because the representation of a non-competitive, accepting arts community is more ideal than pitting actors together in a popularity contest. However, the musical performances were extensive (13! really??!?) and most of the awards a thrill to watch. However, was Best Revival of a Play that unnecessary to the telecast that it was lumped in with the “who cares” categories* of the web-cast hour? And speaking of which, I for one, would have enjoyed seeing the witty and endlessly entertaining Julie White present on the telecast proper, as I feel she should have, especially since she was last year’s winner – not Mary Louise Parker, who it seems, is much more comfortable in character than as herself. (Can you be any less boring reading the teleprompter Milfie?)

* – that is this writer’s assumed opinion of the network powers that be at CBS and not of himself. The aficionado loves him some designers. If there was a God, they would start at 7, or revert back to PBS so we can follow along without having to watch a brief recap in the middle of the ceremony. PS – Thank you for finally recognizing sound design, Tony people! It’s about friggin’ time!

Favorite acceptance speeches included Lin-Manuel Miranda’s off the cuff rap (Look I made a hat, where there never was a hat, and a Latin hat at that”), Anna D. Shapiro (with her anecdote about her nieces and nephews just wanting Little Mermaid tickets), Deanna Dunagan’s graciousness towards costar Amy Morton, and it’s true – they should have shared that award. Mark Rylance’s bizarre non-sequitur of a speech turned out to be a prose poem (“The Back Country” by Louis Jenkins . Unique. And highly amusing – especially the reaction shots from audience members (the most notable being his co-star Mary McCormack). Then there was Laura Benanti “Hi Arthur! You’re standing!” and of course, there was “Patti’s Turn,” my official moniker for her speech in which she seemed to thank everyone involved with her career since she last won “SHUT UP, it’s been 29 years!!” Boy, I would hate to be that conductor. However, was that also the conductor who brought Elaine Stritch’s acceptance speech to an incredibly embarrassing halt six years ago…? Anyone remember that debacle?

Laura Linney looked gorgeous, though the ladies in attendance at the parties cried afoul at her choice of earrings. We all wondered why Faith Prince showed up in costume as Delta Burke – and why she sang like Delta Burke during A Catered Affair’s performance. We gave Patti a standing ovation for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” – which is how every Tony performance should run. Fuck, they let Hepburn have 15 minutes for her big musical (Coco), now we’re relegated to three minutes of awesome. And ten minutes of commercials on a loop. We also went completely off the wall with her when she won, her win becoming our Tony toast for the evening – there are pictures on Sarah’s blog, of us capturing the pre-win look and the moment she yelled “Shut up!” with our camera phones. Yes, kids, we be a bunch of theatre geeks. I even offered to hand in the hetero card to Roxie. Turns out it was my metrocard, so I kept both. There was great fun to be had with this crowd, I doubt I would have enjoyed it anymore with anyone else. I also had my first – and last – cosmopolitan. I’ll stick to my White Russians, thank you.

The run down – from the ones with the most to the ones with the least:

South Pacific: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Paulo Szot), Best Direction of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Best Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Best Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Donald Holder), Best Sound Design of a Musical (Scott Lehrer)
August: Osage County: Best Play, Best Actress in a Play (Deanna Dunagan), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Rondi Reed), Best Direction of a Play (Anna D. Shapiro), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Todd Rosenthal)
In the Heights: Best Musical, Best Score (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Best Choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), Best Orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire & Bill Sherman)
Gypsy: Best Actress in a Musical (Patti LuPone), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Boyd Gaines), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Laura Benanti)
Boeing-Boeing: Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Mark Rylance)
The 39 Steps: Best Lighting Design of a Play (Kevin Adams), Best Sound Design of a Play (Mic Pool)
Passing Strange: Best Book (Stew)
The Seafarer: Best Featured Actor in a Play (Jim Norton)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Best Costume Design of a Play (Katrina Lindsay)

A posthumous honorary Tony award was presented to the most iconic of musical theatre orchestrators, Robert Russell Bennett, who has been dead since 1981. (For the outraged, Tunick fans, he comes in at a tie for second with Don Walker). So I could understand his inability to attend. However, what was Sondheim’s excuse?

Our evening ended with Patricia Routledge as Kitty, especially since Roxie and I have decided that she officially won Best Musical – not Best Musical Revival. From whence cometh my title for this post, as it had us leaving Sarah’s apartment on a continuing, champagne-induced high. On the train ride home, I saw my next door neighbor and said hello. I asked if she did anything fun while in NY. Her response: “I was at the Tony awards.” Well, you can guess the topic of conversation for the next hour on the train.

And there you have it kids. ‘Til next year.