Saturday, March 26, 2011

Theater roundup: Two by Tracy Letts

The cast of August:‭ ‬Osage County,‭ ‬at Actors‭’ ‬Playhouse.

By Hap Erstein

In order to maximize the chances of being produced in these precarious economic times,‭ ‬most writers now limit themselves in their plays‭’ ‬cast size and physical requirements.‭

But every now and again comes an‭ ‬Angels in America or a‭ ‬Coast of Utopia,‭ ‬from playwrights who dare to think on a grand scale,‭ ‬resulting in works resulting in peak experiences for their audiences.

Just such a play is Tracy Letts‭’ ‬August:‭ ‬Osage County,‭ ‬a three-and-a-half hour epic whirlwind,‭ ‬requiring a cast of‭ ‬13,‭ ‬a major theatrical meal amid a theatrical landscape of so much snack food.‭ ‬In it,‭ ‬Letts mines the familiar territory of the dysfunctional family,‭ ‬but he does so with such fury and force that he wipes away our memories of other dramatic sagas on the subject.

Still,‭ ‬a script of this magnitude is not an easy matter to produce,‭ ‬let alone for a company like Actors‭’ ‬Playhouse of Coral Gables,‭ ‬whose strength is musical theater.‭ ‬Yet Letts‭’ ‬play has obviously gotten the creative juices of director David Arisco flowing and the material has attracted some of the region’s finest acting talent.‭ ‬The result is a production that is likely to be a landmark of South Florida theater for years to come.

You could call‭ ‬August:‭ ‬Osage County a tragedy,‭ ‬except it is happening to a family other than your own and watching the verbally abusive meltdown is so much fun.

It all takes place in the sprawling three-story home of the Weston clan‭ (‬artfully designed by Sean McClelland‭)‬,‭ ‬located in a small Oklahoma town near Tulsa.‭ ‬The family is headed,‭ ‬at least briefly,‭ ‬by Beverly Weston,‭ ‬an alcohol-fueled professor and poet,‭ ‬who we hear describing his marital woes to a prospective housekeeper.‭ ‬He hires her and walks away,‭ ‬never to be seen alive again,‭ ‬but was Beverly’s death a drunken accident,‭ ‬foul play or suicide‭?

The answer is of little concern to his coarse,‭ ‬pill-popping wife Violet who convenes the family‭ ‬--‭ ‬three grown daughters and their somewhat significant others‭ ‬--‭ ‬to wait for word of Beverly’s situation and then to attend his funeral.

At they wait,‭ ‬the impromptu family reunion becomes a clawing match,‭ ‬with secrets exposed at regular intervals and the weak pounded into submission by the stronger.

Annette Miller,‭ ‬last seen at Actors Playhouse as the wily,‭ ‬outspoken title character in‭ ‬Martha Mitchell Calling,‭ ‬dominates the evening as sharp-tongued Violet,‭ ‬staggering through life in a drug-induced fog,‭ ‬just sober enough to lash out at whoever is in her path.‭ ‬That is usually her three daughters,‭ ‬the eldest of whom,‭ ‬Barbara‭ (‬a steely Laura Turnbull‭)‬,‭ ‬pulls an Alexander Haig and declares herself in charge of the calamitous situation.‭

The middle daughter,‭ ‬Ivy‭ (‬Kathryn Lee Johnson‭)‬,‭ ‬has been her parents‭’ ‬caregiver,‭ ‬but wildly underappreciated,‭ ‬and destined to be pushed aside.‭ ‬Youngest daughter Karen‭ (‬Amy McKenna‭) ‬has unwisely gotten engaged to a shady Miami businessman‭ (‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony‭)‬,‭ ‬whose roving eye locks onto Barbara’s teenage daughter Jean‭ (‬a crafty Jackie Rivera‭)‬.

They are at the core of‭ ‬August:‭ ‬Osage County,‭ ‬but even the secondary characters,‭ ‬like Violet’s abrasive sister‭ (‬Barbara Bradshaw‭)‬,‭ ‬her meek husband‭ (‬Peter Haig‭) ‬and their embarrassment of a son‭ (‬Erik Fabregat‭) ‬have their stinging moments.

The centerpiece of the play is a family dinner that begins civilly,‭ ‬but soon escalates into general combat.‭ ‬One would think there was nothing left to reveal by the third act,‭ ‬but Letts saves his most devastating revelations for the evening’s final third.

Arisco lets the play breathe a bit,‭ ‬but knows how to turn on the theatrics for maximum effect.‭ ‬Only the most honest of theatergoers will see themselves among these irredeemable souls,‭ ‬but they will probably recognize some of their family members.

AUGUST:‭ ‬OSAGE COUNTY,‭ ‬Actors‭’ ‬Playhouse,‭ ‬280‭ ‬Miracle Mile,‭ ‬Coral Gables.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬April‭ ‬3.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$42-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(305‭) ‬444-9293.

‭ * * *

Gordon McConnell,‭ ‬Marckenson Charles,‭
‬Avi Hoffman and Paul Homza in Superior Donuts.
‭(‬Photo by George Schiavone‭)

By a quirk of scheduling,‭ ‬across town in Coral Gables,‭ ‬Letts‭’ ‬follow-up to‭ ‬August:‭ ‬Osage County,‭ ‬the more benign,‭ ‬but worthy‭ ‬Superior Donuts is playing at GableStage.‭ ‬It is a consciously conventional play,‭ ‬even without comparing it to Letts‭’ ‬Pulitzer Prize winner,‭ ‬and surprisingly upbeat when judged against‭ ‬Killer Joe or‭ ‬Bug,‭ ‬two other scripts by Letts that GableStage has produced.

Not that‭ ‬Superior Donuts is without conflict or violence,‭ ‬but unlike his other works,‭ ‬you can sense the playwright letting the audience off the hook with a concluding suggestion of hope that his other three plays certainly do not have.

The action all takes place inside a North Side Chicago donut shop,‭ ‬a rundown neighborhood coffee-and-cruller joint that‭ ‬60-ish Arthur Przybyszewski‭ ‬--‭ ‬the‭ “‬P‭” ‬is silent‭ ‬--‭ ‬long ago inherited from his father.‭ ‬But even though the area has gone to seed,‭ ‬Starbucks has just opened across the street and it looks like Arthur’s shop is on its last legs.‭

Prior to the play’s start,‭ ‬someone has broken in and defaced the shop’s interior,‭ ‬but Arthur remains unfazed,‭ ‬or perhaps he gave up on any grand aspirations for the place long ago.

If so,‭ ‬he has his hollow complacency shaken by the arrival of Franco Wicks,‭ ‬a‭ ‬21-year-old street-smart black dude,‭ ‬who talks his way into a job and into Arthur’s heart.‭ ‬Full of bravado and non-stop gab,‭ ‬he totes with him a messy manuscript of what he calls his‭ “‬Great American Novel,‭” ‬but he also carries the burden of‭ ‬$16,000‭ ‬in gambling debts.‭

At its best,‭ ‬Superior Donuts draws the growth of the unlikely friendship of Arthur and Franco,‭ ‬as they trade wisecracks and world views.‭ ‬Franco is brought vividly to life by a very promising young African-American actor,‭ ‬Marckenson Charles,‭ ‬whose swagger and verbal confidence are both ingratiating and persuasive.‭ ‬He plays off of the naturally ebullient Avi Hoffman,‭ ‬here underplaying as a man whose life went on hold when he fled to Canada during the Vietnam War,‭ ‬evading the draft.‭

At its worst,‭ ‬Franco is confronted by his tough-talking bookie‭ (‬Gordon McConnell‭)‬,‭ ‬a guy of indeterminate nationality,‭ ‬who threatens him over his overdue loan.‭ ‬Unlike the rest of the play,‭ ‬which breathes with such authenticity,‭ ‬this subplot feels like a bad rewrite of‭ ‬I’m Not Rappaport‭ ‬--‭ ‬one of the final productions of Hoffman’s defunct New Vista Theatre Company‭ ‬--‭ ‬even more so when Arthur ultimately decides to risk his life by standing up to the bookie in a brawl.

The resolution of the standoff is a credibility-stretcher.‭ ‬While Letts seems to be echoing the pipe dreams of Eugene O’Neill’s‭ ‬The Iceman Cometh,‭ ‬he chooses to avoid the despair of that play’s conclusion.

As a result,‭ ‬Superior Donuts is a lot more upbeat than most of GableStage’s fare,‭ ‬though director Joe Adler does what he can to cover the proceedings with a layer of grit.‭ ‬In addition to Hoffman and Charles,‭ ‬he fills the stage with an on-target ensemble that includes John Archie and Patti Gardner as two of the Second City’s finest,‭ ‬Sally Bondi as a wry bag lady and particularly Chaz Mena as a Russian entrepreneur eager to acquire Arthur’s shop.

If you only have time to see one Letts play,‭ ‬you must opt for‭ ‬August:‭ ‬Osage County.‭ ‬But if you can also see‭ ‬Superior Donuts,‭ ‬you can sense the range of this writer who seems likely to be spinning tales onstage for a long time to come.

SUPERIOR DONUTS,‭ ‬GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel,‭ ‬1200‭ ‬Anastasia Ave.,‭ ‬Coral Gables.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬April‭ ‬10.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$37.50-$45.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(305‭) ‬445-1119.

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