AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a compelling example of the difficulties of transferring the theatre to the screen. Roman Polanski managed it well in his adaptation of Yasmin Reza’s play, “Carnage”, as did Ron Howard with “Frost/Nixon” and even Rob Marshall with “Chicago” (less well done was John Patrick Shanley’s production of “Doubt”). These movies, in their wordiness, retained a sense of the theatre, but the directors offered audiences dimensions that clearly the stage couldn’t. For one thing, their directors know how to re-interpret the acting – away from gesture to facial nuance.
Director John Wells (mainly TV shows) doesn’t manage this leap of media. For him, the idea of adaptation centered mainly on injecting physical movement (cars driving along empty roads etc) and scenery. But Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer prize-winning play, which must have been an exhausting, invigorating audience experience in the theatre, becomes in Wells’ hands, simply a shrill, melodramatic soap opera.
The action centers around the gathering of the Weston clan after the death of their father Beverly (Sam Shepard) in their sprawling country farm. It’s a glittering setting, fretted with stars: Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is the drug-addicted, foul-mouthed self-centered, bitchy mom. Daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson, so brilliant in “Masters of Sex”), all suffering from compromised relationships, have dragged along their significant (not by any means, better) halves: Bill (Ewan McGregor) has recently left Barbara (Roberts) for a younger woman; Steve (Dermot Mulroney), supposedly about to marry Karen is a sleazy lecher and Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), a weepy, sniffling wimp, is Ivy’s cousin and secret lover.
Hovering around this emotionally distraught, hysterical group are Violet’s sister, and Little Charles’ mother, Mattie (Margo Martindale – so good in “The Americans”), her husband Charlie (the inimitable Chris Cooper) and ‘the kid’, Jean (Abigail Breslin), Barbara and Bill’s troubled teenage daughter.
In a story about the use of truth as a weapon, and secrecy as, sometimes, the only protection we have, you’d think that such a sterling ensemble, stirring this cauldron of family dysfunction, couldn’t possibly go wrong. You’d be wrong.
Violet Weston is the emotional center of the story. It’s her abusiveness and self-loathing that has probably initiated the kind of personal traumas all her daughters suffer from. And John Wells understandably places the burden of carrying the emotional tenor of the story on Meryl Streep’s broad shoulders. But either as a result of his directing, or Meryl’s interpretation of the role, she brings such a yelling, strident caricature to her portrayal that even Julia Robert’s counterpoint of quiet anguish and steely determination cannot moderate Meryl’s overly theatrical excess.
The result is that the very real issues the play deals with – trying to understand the elements that make and break relationships – are transformed into a series of scene-stealing pot-boiler vignettes without any real narrative or emotional arc. The characters shout at each other. Frequently. Lurid revelations of secret liaisons are revealed; lives barely held together by lies are destroyed by lacerating truths. Basically, it’s the kind of stuff that, in this telling, makes you feel can only happens in plays.
Wells and Streep have turned Letts’s thoughtful insights into a tabloid exposé.
The acting is also surprisingly un-even. Apparently writer Letts was concerned about the use of British talent (McGregor and Cumberbatch) that producer Harvey Weinstein had insisted on (to broaden the appeal of this very Americana story). He apparently said that the end result proved his misgivings wrong. Nope. He was right. McGregor and Cumberbatch seemed overawed by the company of their peers. Even when the focus is on them they seem to drift off center, uncertain how to cope with all this venting anguish. Only Dermot Mulroney: seductive, sleazy, amoral, held his own amongst the strong female acting talent on display.
The pity of it all. ‘twas a missed opportunity.