Audiences whose frame of reference is fixed in television are more likely to see parallels with the sitcom “Mama’s Family,” in which a chronically discontented mother keeps trying to top herself in insulting her grown-up progeny. Acted with undeniable verve by a big ensemble (itself a rarity in Broadway dramas these days), this Steppenwolf production allows theatergoers to feel they’ve experienced a Significant Play without being in any way challenged.
Incredibly, Big Ben also imagines that Letts wrote a 13-character play as a bid to cash in (cue morbid laughter from every American playwright conditioned by regional theatres to pare her dramatis personae down to three characters, max).
Fans of Mr. Letts’s earlier work, the nasty drames noirs “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” might have wondered what happened to the subversive and highly original voice of those previous plays. (“I want Tracy Letts back!” screamed the woman I saw “August” with at intermission.) The cynical answer would be that “August” was a calculated career move, since with one play, Mr. Letts has moved from the margins to the mainstream, with the attendant brand-name awards and box-office revenue.
Brantley begrudgingly admits that Letts could actually be sincere in his embrace of what he terms the play's "cliches" and "closure." Even allowing for the diversity of opinion that enriches and enlivens our theatrical discourse, I think the technical term for this is horseshit. I loved Bug and Killer Joe nearly as much as I do August, but at best these plays revitalized, not reinvented, the theatrical form. The valorization of "edgy" and "subversive" work over supposedly "mainstream" or "old-fashioned" work is a false distinction, at least in this instance, and it reads quite transparently as an attempt to score critical points for their own sake.
Which makes me wonder...As much as I hate to give merit to the sort of conspiratorial speculation one hears too often about the Grey Lady's critics of record, I can't help but notice that the plays whose purported iconoclasm Brantley is so insistent on downgrading into "comfort food"--August, Passing Strange, In the Heights, not to mention last season's hyped "form-breaking" winner Spring Awakening--got their influential, blurb-studded Times review not from him but from that other guy. This long and lively thread can't have made August any dearer to Mr. Brantley's heart.
UPDATE: Chicago blogger/critic Kris Vire linked to my post, and along the way pointed out this fresh Als outrage--a post-Tony dialogue with New Yorker colleague John Lahr. I'm a bit appalled that a stalwart playwright's champion like Lahr just sits silently there while Als again shreds August (albeit just for casting, direction, and accents), but perhaps this exchange best explains why Lahr puts up with Als' nuttery:
4. Stephen Sondheim got a Lifetime Achievement Tony this year, although he didn’t show up to receive the award. Who do you think should get one?
ALS: John Lahr?