2007’s best and worst on stage
1 August: Osage County
Neither of Tracy Letts’ previous New York productions — R-rated, white-trash black comedies — heralded the future of American playwriting. His 1998 trailer-park bloodbath Killer Joe featured full-frontal nudity and a woman fellating a fried chicken leg. The motel-room psychological thriller Bug (2004) contained snorting, freebasing, and skin-crawling paranoid delusions. How could one predict that he would pen the cacophonous Oklahoman symphony August: Osage County?
A three-act, three-hour-plus sucker punch that leaves you exhausted, elated, and craving more, August is as classic as Joe and Bug are contemporary, echoing predecessors from Edward Albee to Tennessee Williams. At the heart of the fractured family reunion is pill-popping Violet (Deanna Dunagan, whose matriarch could make mincemeat out of Mommie Dearest‘s Joan Crawford), a dead ringer for Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone; she even has the artist-turned-alcoholic husband (Dennis Letts, the dramatist’s dad, in a brief but haunting appearance). The raw, brutal language and the Plains setting — ”We f—ed the Indians for this?” cracks daughter Barbara (Amy Morton) — evokes Sam Shepard.
But Letts is no imitator. The sometime actor has his own affinity for damaged characters and decidedly warped perspective on life (”F— love, what a crock of s—. People can convince themselves they love a painted rock”). It’s too soon to tell whether he will end up in the pantheon of Great American Playwrights. But August unquestionably belongs in the catalog of Great American Plays.
2 Dividing the Estate (OFF BROADWAY)
Set in Horton Foote’s familiar fictional Harrison, Tex., this sharp-tongued satire centers on the Gordons, a backstabbing, money-grubbing bunch who, God bless them, still have manners enough to address one another as ”Brother” and ”Sister.” Anchoring the fine ensemble — who may reunite for a 2008 Broadway run — was Hallie Foote, a first-class interpreter of her father’s work. As a steely-eyed rabble-rouser in sensible shoes, Hallie embodied all the traditional Foote family values: She was nostalgic, not weepy; pensive, not sentimental; hapless, not helpless.
3 The Seafarer (BROADWAY)
In Conor McPherson’s eighth New York outing, the Irish playwright translates his gift for gab into a taut, quietly moving thriller. He begins with a ho-hum premise: Five fellas crowd into a dingy Dublin living room for a whiskey-soaked Christmas card game. Then he gives it his usual supernatural spin. The guy in the trilby (Ciarán Hinds) is Satan, betting on the soul of a newly sober ne’er-do-well (David Morse). Yet McPherson conjures so much sympathy for the devil, his charge, and their pals that it doesn’t matter who wins or loses. It’s how they play each other.
4 The Homecoming (BROADWAY)
And you thought your in-laws were unbearable. At least they’re not pimping you out. In this crackling revival of Harold Pinter’s fascinatingly perverse 1965 drama, Teddy (James Frain) brings wife Ruth (Eve Best, exuding subtle sexiness) to meet his family. But he might as well toss a T-bone to a pack of drooling Dobermans. ”I’ve never had a whore under this roof before,” muses his dad (Ian McShane, at his booming, belligerent best). ”Ever since your mother died.” Watching a father and his sons deify and disparage the woman proves immensely, horrifyingly entertaining.
5 King Hedley II (OFF BROADWAY)
The ’80s entry in the late August Wilson’s 10-play 20th-century cycle is a tangled web: robbery, romance, and the demise of 366-year-old shaman Aunt Ester, whom Wilson called ”the most significant persona of the cycle.” The Signature Theatre’s blistering production — powered by the hard-hitting hip-hop sounds of Public Enemy, Schoolly D, Run-DMC, and others — made Hedley modern and accessible.
6 Frost/Nixon (BROADWAY)
Screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) is of two minds about his first play, which chronicles the 1977 on-air face-off between Richard Nixon and U.K. chat-show host David Frost. He describes it as ”an accurate representation.” He also calls it ”fiction — a creation.” Perhaps there wasn’t really a drunken phone call discussing cheeseburgers and Watergate. But this much is true: Frank Langella’s Nixon was commanding but never cartoonish, Michael Sheen’s Frost endearingly self-conscious, and Morgan’s script slick and surprisingly poignant.
7 Gypsy (OFF BROADWAY)
Though it’s the perfect musical, no one was clamoring for Gypsy so soon after Sam Mendes’ 2003 misfire (headlined by Bernadette Peters’ porcelain-doll Mama Rose). Still, the prospect of iron-lunged diva Patti LuPone tearing into ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses” was too brilliant to pass up. And speaking of brilliant: Boyd Gaines actually did something as Rose’s agent/beau/doormat, Herbie. If you missed this three-week summer stint, hold your hats and hallelujah: Patti & Co. are bringing it to Broadway in March.
8 Speech & Debate (OFF BROADWAY)
A show for the Facebook generation. Even if you’re not fluent in IM, you’ll LOL at this subversive comedy by 27-year-old former S&D champ Stephen Karam. Mordant misfits Diwata (Sarah Steele), Solomon (Jason Fuchs), and Howie (Gideon Glick) come together via circumstance and learn valuable lessons: Sometimes you’ve got to ”hold it in,” as The Crucible‘s plucky Puritan Mary tells a sexually confused Abe Lincoln. And sometimes you need to crank up George Michael’s ”Freedom,” strip down to a nude body stocking, make like Martha Graham, and let it out.
9 Mauritius (BROADWAY)
Theresa Rebeck marked ’07 with two fine plays: the showbiz send-up The Scene and Mauritius, an American Buffalo-like con with a sibling-rivalry twist. In the latter, a top-shelf cast led by Bobby Cannavale (as a bighearted hood) and Alison Pill (his ”damaged” mark) made philately — stamp collecting to you and me — sound positively scintillating. If Rebeck left too many loose ends, what she says about stamps can apply to plays: ”It’s the errors that make ’em valuable.”
10 100 Saints You Should Know (OFF BROADWAY)
Crisis-of-faith plays will be forever shadowed by John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. And the strangers-bonded-by-death premise is nearly as old as the Bible itself. Kate Fodor’s delicate drama overcame both of those hurdles. Father McNally (Jeremy Shamos) has forgotten how to pray; his maid, Theresa (Janel Moloney), wants to learn. What they’re both desperately seeking is ”a surge of the heart, a cry of recognition and love.” In the end, aren’t we all?
1 The Pirate Queen
The tout ”From the producers of Riverdance” should have been a sign. By the time Queen Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord) and buccaneer babe Grace O’Malley (Stephanie J. Block) got to their you-go-girl duet, everyone was ready to jump overboard.
2 Cyrano de Bergerac
Jennifer Garner looks gorgeous. Daniel Sunjata looks gorgeous. Kevin Kline sounds gorgeous. If only someone had given them a little direction. Like the director.
3 Old Acquaintance
Catfights, cougars, secret trysts: There’s frisky fun in the 1940 drawing room comedy…but there was none in this revival. Star Margaret Colin is having a much better time on Gossip Girl.
Even the most ardent Terrance McNally admirers must admit that he wasn’t on his game with Deuce. The wistful tennis comedy matching Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes as former doubles champs was sappy and meandering. A double fault.
To quote the show: It’s ”like children’s theater for 40-year-old-gay people!” Hey, they said it, not us.