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August: Osage County feigns greatness

Cole Porter declared prophetically in 1934 that "anything goes." Confirming that truth, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County (at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday) won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It would have been just as logical for the jury to bestow the prize on Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. They're both effective yet mechanically rigged trips built out of centuries of plundered mayhem.

While the techno wizards in Orlando offer a rousing, robotic Bluebeard slashing plastic throats, the equally adroit Letts has conjured up a lacerating, pill-ridden matriarch who annihilates egos. The play takes an Oklahoma family through every histrionic land mine, from addiction to zealous recrimination.

Back in the last century, playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett attempted to purify the stage by purging their works of melodramatic frippery. Letts takes the opposite approach. He functions like a literate vampire, engorging himself on chaos, ranging from Elizabethan bloodbaths to Eugene O'Neill-like weltschmerz and emotionally bottled-up Lillian Hellman villainesses.

Letts' talent is taking all this input and rendering it in a form that brings to mind Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art cartoons. Although this makes theatrical fireworks and gives performers a chance to show off their vocal dexterity, it leaves little room for a human soul.

Perhaps the play's greatest failing is overkill. It runs three and a half hours. Tony Kushner's even longer Angels in America had the excuse of half a decade of political history. Wagner had the excuse of genius. But Letts seems only to have the need to cram in visceral thrills from every literature course he encountered on the way to adulthood.

Letts is an actor and the son of an actor, and he knows how to concoct juicy plot twists that propel outrageous behavior. The opening scene works like a great overture, with the family patriarch explaining to the new Native-American maid the history of his wife's pill popping, his children's greed, and his relentless mediocrity.

In this perfectly rendered touring production, Jon DeVries — with his George C. Scott growl — is the human equivalent of the thrilling trumpet that opens Gypsy.

At age 82, the bravura manner in which Estelle Parsons descends a staircase would be a miracle in itself. But as Violet, the drug-addled matriarch, she has the depraved vitality of a Christmas elf gone psychotic. It's a portrait of addiction so potent, rehab clinics could use it as a warning to potential patients.

The late director Robert Altman would have been the ideal ringmaster to shape Letts' grotesqueries into a riveting, coherent work of art. We are happy to settle for Anna D. Shapiro's bold guidance and application of directorial oil to keep these treacherous gears spinning smoothly.  

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More by Keith A. Joseph

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