At one point in the middle act of Tracy Letts’s monumental August: Osage County, the Weston family, having risen from a dinner that turned into a brawl, splinters into a half-dozen simultaneous squabbles. Ranging along the stage is a panorama of the ways families come to grief: unfaithful spouses, vindictive parents, ill-kept secrets, and other bad behavior that in no way constitutes honoring thy father and mother.
Though the shouting renders everybody’s arguments incomprehensible, we somehow know what they’re saying. But the scene really resonates because we know what they’re feeling. Letts draws his characters so vividly—makes them so exquisite a balance of your own hopeless relatives and defiant one-of-a-kinds—that the stage is like a row of emotional X-rays. The outburst of noisy suffering somehow makes this battle hilarious: I winced, and then I laughed like hell.
So as you might have heard by now, Letts’s play at the Imperial is not just good, but freakishly, atavistically good. The disappearance of Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts, the playwright’s father), the hard-drinking poet-patriarch of this Oklahoma clan, sets in motion a three-hour-plus, thirteen-character epic of a kind that simply does not exist in American theater anymore. Though Letts, an actor-playwright who lives in Chicago, has shown no prior inclination toward writing massive family epics, he’s recaptured the nobility of American drama’s mid-century heyday while still creating something entirely original.
Well, almost entirely. When Beverly’s departure brings his three grown daughters (and their families) rallying to the side of their mother (Deanna Dunagan), her pill-popping and penchant for telling the children what colossal disappointments they are make the play seem a bit like a literary mash-up: Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? becoming stepmom to the Tyrone boys from Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Fortunately, the play’s sensibility proves fresher than its material—those three hours fly by.
“I’ve got the Plains,” says Barbara (Amy Morton), the eldest daughter and biggest chip off her mother’s hard-driving block. By “the Plains,” she means that she’s got “some spiritual affliction, like the blues.” It’s a despair that comes from regret over bad decisions and bleak prospects—in her case, separating from the husband (Jeff Perry) who’s cheating on her with a younger woman (a theme that recurs obsessively) and failing to connect with their pot-smoking daughter (Madeleine Martin). Though having “the Plains” leads family members to some desperate measures, Letts somehow keeps the darkness from growing oppressive. When Barbara gets some especially bad news, she says, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.” This is the terrible tragic wisdom of Aeschylus carried forward 2,500 years, but Letts, characteristically, gets a big laugh out of it—both funny ha-ha and funny oh-God-she’s-right.
The play proves just as funny in its well-aimed swipes at the Greatest Generation and the “narcissistic” baby-boomers, though they don’t sting nearly as much as you wish they did. Still, director Anna D. Shapiro and the perfect—seriously, perfect—Steppenwolf cast keep pulling you into its mysteries. What are we to make of the enigmatic presence, in this play that more than once evokes America’s bloody past and dubious future, of a kindly, ill-used young Native American woman as the housekeeper? Then there’s the big conundrum: Once you’ve written a brilliantly gruesome psychological thriller (Bug), a midlife-crisis play (Man From Nebraska), a captivating caper (Killer Joe), and shown that you can stretch and deepen to produce a dramatic achievement on this scale—and all by age 43—what in the world do you do next?
Bill Clinton rode his diabolical gift for making wonkery exciting all the way to the White House; Aaron Sorkin, having used the same gift to furnish the fake White House on The West Wing, now rides it back to Broadway. The Farnsworth Invention, his new play about the eventful birth of television, is crammed full of history, physics, and technical mumbo-jumbo yet somehow keeps clicking along. At one point, my pulse distinctly rose when I learned the fate of something called “the Audion tube.”
There aren’t many playwrights whose style—whose virtuosic command of words—is enough to recommend their work, but Sorkin is one. Here, he has young Philo T. Farnsworth (charismatic Jimmi Simpson) and RCA chief David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) battling for control of television, and for whose version of history the audience will hear. I could quote you some choice one-liners, but Sorkin’s real strength is rhythmic, the way he’s able to make Farnsworth’s research or Sarnoff’s legal maneuvers captivating for long stretches at a time. Nowhere is this clearer than Farnsworth’s retelling of the 1929 stock-market crash, five minutes that make an endlessly rehashed event newly, preposterously exciting.
For all its gleaming surfaces and minute-by-minute appeal, though, the play doesn’t leave you with much to think about or to feel—it says a lot without really saying anything. (An eleventh-hour attempt to drape the plot in some borrowed glory from the moon shot only emphasizes its thinness.) You might contrast Sorkin with Richard Greenberg, an equally sharp stylist whose plays almost always make you think or feel something new (or with Rinne Groff, whose The Ruby Sunrise was a less flashy but more thoughtful play about TV). Still, if a genie ever gives me the chance to live in some writer’s world, I’m picking Sorkin’s. The people are all so attractive, and the suits nearly as snappy as the lines.
As The Farnsworth Invention ends, we learn that the inventor of electronic television died broke and forgotten, crushed under the heel of RCA’s aggressive lawyering. But everyone knows one word he inadvertently coined. Farnsworth called his TV-camera tube an “image dissector,” and RCA’s later improvement was called the “image orthicon.” In the business, that term got shortened to “immy.” And that in turn gave a name to TV’s highest honor: the Emmy.