Posts Tagged ‘another play about really fucked up American families’

Review – In A Dark Dark House – Almeida Theatre

December 7, 2008

Since I enjoyed Fat Pig so much, I was excited when I heard Neil LaBute’s newest play was making its European debut at the Almeida. His writing is very much focused on the American now – not so much the historical moment we find ourselves in as the psychological landscape we live in. I’m not sure if the way I’m wired inside is similar to the English that I live among, but I think it’s different, and I think LaBute gets it. Pinter, I think, is the playwright of the English psyche – a lot of his mysteries can only be understood by those who live here. LaBute seems to understand the lies Americans tell themselves about what they feel and what is important to them, about how they want to be and how they actually act, and about how the react when they realize (or have pointed out) these contradictions. I also very much like his dialogue – it very much sounds appropriate for now, rather than being written in some “high theater” style.

In a Dark Dark House is well suited to the elements I like of his style. The story is about two brothers dealing with some very bad elements of their childhood as well as their relationship with each other. The younger brother Drew (Steven Mackintosh) has made enough of a wreck of his life that he’s wound up at a nut farm/”rehab” facility after a major car crash; he’s asked his estranged elder sibling Terry (David Morrissey) to come and help with his therapy. This all seems pretty pedestrian, even given the serious lack of empathy between the two brothers. In fact, it seems like it’s all going to blow up and the play is going to end rather quickly (though I had no idea where it was going to go) when Terry decides he’s just had enough of his brother’s game-playing bullshit and gets ready to storm of the stage and just leave him to his own devices (and likely jail sentence) when suddenly it comes out what the therapy session is really dealing with; not parental abandonment, not serious physical abuse (at the hands of their father), but child sexual abuse, and Terry’s possible role in allowing this to happen to his brother.

Wow. Suddenly I was sitting up on the edge of my seat. This is not really a topic I’ve seen dealt with much in the theater, and I’ve never seen it handled particularly well. But the effect sexual abuse has in later years on the adults who were its victims, and the particularly squirrely convolutions it has on the relationships between two people who both suffered it at the hands of the same person and then spend years not talking about it to each other … that was really something. I became entirely lost in the dialogue and really focused on the play, quite an achievement given the condition I was in (sleep dep and burnt out from work).

Oddly, it was the second scene that really had me on edge and was also the strongest one of the night. Terry left his brother as an avenging angel out to find the person who screwed them both up. Incongruously, he winds up on a miniature golf course, where Jennifer (Kira Sternbach) is waving her rather underclad (and well toned) bum at the audience while she cleans up the ball tubes (the conversational innuendo in this scene was pretty heavy, so please don’t blame it on me!). This 15 year old, who is rather heavily flirting with Terry, turns out to be … the daughter of the man who sexually abused him and his brother.

Really, just where was it all going to go? As the scene ended, with the tension ratcheted up so high I could almost not bear to watch any more, I had NO idea what the playwright was going to choose to do. We’d already done childhood sexual molestation – did we have any more evils to hit?

The final scene is at Drew’s fancy house; he’s made it out of rehab and is celebrating. Then his brother Terry shows up to tell him about what he’s been up to, and … well, let’s say it doesn’t go well. I enjoyed it, though – it was a good evening out and a peach at 1:45 running time with no interval (forgive me but I was exhausted and the Almeida is a long trek from my house), and I felt well rewarded for trusting to an author I enjoyed to provide me with an energizing and provocative (in ever so many ways) night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 4th, 2008. In a Dark House runs through January 17th.)

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Review – August: Osage County – Steppenwolf at the National Theatre

November 29, 2008

Tonight I got to see a show I have been waiting to see for a year, since I first read about it in the New York Times: August: Osage County, the Pulitzer prize winning play by Tracy Letts that is receiving its European premiere this week at London’s National Theatre. The phrase “It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” had me drooling and going mad that it was so far away. In fact, my secret plan was to see it this winter in New York, but No! The original cast was leaving Broadway! I was doomed to only see a shallow recreation of the original …

until I read that the Steppenwolf cast was coming to remount it in London. Hurray!

Of course, this only meant that I was doomed to be disappointed as this incredibly over-hyped show proved to me, once again, that you can never meet hopes that are raised to such a fever pitch.

This, in fact, is not the case. Is August: Osage County the best show I’ve seen on a London stage this year? I’m afraid so. Is it the best play written in America in, say, the last five years? Well, I am pretty damned sure it is. In fact, it’s about the only new play I’ve ever seen that made me feel like I’d actually seen a show that was going to make it into the canon. A family drama with the psychological knife of Ibsen, the turmoil of O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the desperation of Death of a Salesman … God yes, this play was brilliant. It hit the key question that a great play must be able to say yes to: did I just see a play where I felt like the characters had lives before the show, and after? Osage County somehow managed to put thirteen people on stage of which only four were filler. Every other one, I could probably think about it and tell you a little bit about their childhood, and what they did a month after the end of the play. It was that good.

I will try to stop the foaming at the mouth and review it just a bit. The story is that the … uh, don’t want to give away any plot points … matriarch of this Oklahoma family has her daughters and sister (and spouses, and one grandchild) gathered around her, and she is … falling apart. Deanna Dunagan (as Beverly Weston) plays a manipulative, pill-popping, vicious woman the likes of which I haven’t seen since All About Eve. She was a force of disruption everywhere she went, and while I can’t be sure that muscle relaxants will quite make someone act the way she did, I completely bought into her character.

Also brilliant were Rondi Reed (as Violet’s sister Mattie Fay Aiken) and Amy Morton (as Barbara Fordham, her eldest daughter). I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many good roles for women “of a certain age” on stage at the same time. They were angry, they were tender, they were hurt, they had secrets, they had goals in their lives they wanted to accomplish. I thought of the wimpy heroines of Chekov and thought, give me these foul mouthed, strong willed gals any old day.

My only complaint about the evening was the excessive laughter of the audience (which occasionally made it hard to hear what the actors were saying – perhaps a bit of a problem with the sound design, also?). There were several funny lines, but it seemed the audience really and truly thought they were at a comedy, rather than watching the sad disintegration of a group of people who might even love each other underneath the nastiness. Maybe they were really uncomfortable with the tension on stage – the post-funeral dinner was like fingernails on a chalkboard – or maybe there was some extra layer of English sensitivity that was being hit that I didn’t get. It is a serious play with some funny moments, but it is not in any way “uproarious.” It really is just the simple truth about how things are, and I think a lot of people don’t like to admit that way more people have families like this than you want to believe.

At any rate, GOD, a four star night. It’s here for eight weeks; open up your wallet and buy your tickets now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 28th. Be advised the running time is three and a half hours – starts at 7:15, done at 10:45 – though I just felt like time flew by while I was in the theater.)