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Byron Shire
March 1, 2021

August: Osage County

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Tracy Letts’s Broadway play, August: Osage County, won every prize on offer, including the Pulitzer, after its Broadway debut in 2007.

My cinema companion, however, warned me that when she saw the touring production in Sydney she found it underwhelming.

I’m not sure if boring is quite the right word for John Wells’s film adaptation – Letts was screenwriter – but what was boorish in the extreme was the woman who sat in front of us and noisily stuffed her face for the first fifteen minutes with potato crisps.

We moved three rows back, but the crackling and vulgar grinding still infringed, like rats in the roof. It occurred to me later that the awful woman’s lack of consideration for those around her mirrored the self-centredness of Meryl Streep’s drug-addled dowager in this stagy, overwrought black comedy – and I only say ‘black comedy’ because that is how it has been categorised by the cognoscenti.

Out of step with most in the audience, who laughed regularly as the Westons tore strips off each other in the wake of the father’s suicide, I grew increasingly less interested in the unlikeable lot.

The dysfunctional family has been a preferred subject of an angst-ridden generation (especially on TV, the medium in which Wells has primarily worked), but too often its strength is simultaneously its weakness, viz, the stories are peopled by characters who are a pain in the arse.

A stellar cast is involved here – besides Streep, there are Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard and the fabulously reptilian Dermot Mulroney – and each woman is given virtuoso scenes in which they are allowed free rein to impress.

Gathered from hither and yon, the Westons, with the usual subterranean resentments, go to war at the dinner table and skid unstoppably downhill from there towards the revelation of a dark secret that is just what you’d expect from such a potboiler.

It’s expertly done, but I wanted the maid to throttle them all – and the piggy chip woman, too.

~ John Campbell


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