photo: Joan Marcus
I'm not convinced that Tracy Letts' tragic/comic portrait of a dysfunctional family is ultimately a great play, but there's no doubt it's greatly entertaining melodrama and frequently very funny: it never lags, even at three and a half hours. (Its length is part of what's exciting about it: you don't expect the play to be able to sustain its juicy mix of comedy and soap opera over three acts but it does). As our attention is led around the rooms in the three-tiered house that is the play's set, the lurid subplots pile up one on top of the other - drugs, secret affairs, pedophilia, and so on - and although the inspirations may be some laughing-gassed mix of Sam Shepard and Chekhov, the result feels more like Robert Altman's film A Wedding: we laugh as we watch the colorful characters and their telenovella-level problems but we're halted at irregular intervals by something inescapably painful and sad. Letts' writing is textured and his dialogue lively and involving - he's given everyone in the ensemble some sensational material to play - and this is obviously a departure from earlier plays like Bug and Killer Joe. It restores the good name of melodrama, and that's more than enough to make it one of the year's best, but I suspect that August Osage County will turn out to be a warm-up for something with more depth and more thematic resonance from Letts in the future.