CHICAGO -- When playwright Tracy Letts walked into New York rehearsals for the touring production of his "August: Osage County" earlier this summer, he did not find the fellow Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble members who blew away brittle New York aesthetes with their gale-force, Chicago-style acting in Letts' devastating Broadway play. Although a few of the touring cast members -- mostly notably, the widely acclaimed Estelle Parsons -- had done the show as Broadway replacements during the long New York run, and many have ties to both Letts and other Chicago theaters, the famously dysfunctional Westons of Oklahoma are being played on the road by none of the original cast.
"I really have to say," Letts says over lunch, a devilish grin on his face, "I was kind of relieved not to be looking across the table at the same exhausted faces."
Even though he had written his Pulitzer Prize-winning play especially for them. Even though he knew where most of the bodies were buried in the infamously complex web of relationships -- professional, romantic, always personal -- that have been part of the Steppenwolf gestalt ever since Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney founded this most famous of Chicago theaters in 1974 and dragged it to fame, longevity and international acclaim by the sweat of their own ambition. Letts was happy to see some gung-ho fresh meat taking his play out west.
"August: Osage County," which premiered to critical acclaim in Chicago during the summer of 2007 and opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 9, is the semiautobiographical story of three adult, angst-laden sisters who return home to their pill-popping mother's house of emotional horrors following the mysterious disappearance of their father, a sometime writer and constant drinker. A symphony of domestic violence ensues, conducted by the caustically manipulative Violet Weston, who knows how to reduce her hapless family to self-doubting blubber on the Plains.
Right from the Chicago premiere, there has been lively debate between those who see the play as a weighty and profound masterpiece of American familial dysfunction, fully worthy of comparison to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and those who see it more as a juicily entertaining pseudo-memoir and potboiler, more comparable to the work of Lillian Hellman or even Quentin Tarantino. Still, it's hard to overstate the demonstrable force of an audience's response to this work. Despite its running time of almost three hours and 30 minutes, this jaw-dropping three-act opus has become one of the most critically and commercially successful American dramas of the modern era.
Director Anna D. Shapiro's Steppenwolf production transferred to Broadway and ran for 648 performances, winning five Tony Awards, including best play. It won Letts a Pulitzer Prize. It settled easily on the stage of the National Theatre in London, original Chicago cast mostly intact and the British audience open-mouthed. Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of Letts' script, says it has sold tens of thousands of copies at lightning speed. And the 2011 movie version -- Letts has already turned in the second draft of his screenplay to Jean Doumanian Productions -- has fired up such a broad swath of the Hollywood A-list, Meryl Streep and all, that predicting which megawatt star will end up playing which role has become a parlor game.
But by virtue of its intensity, its longevity, the toxic passive-aggressive manipulations of its characters, and a rough set of real-life circumstances involving uprooting the lives of middle-age and crotchety Chicago actors, opening in the middle of a 2007 Broadway stagehands strike, and the death of the playwright's father (an original cast member), "August: Osage County" extracted a psychic toll on everyone involved.
"If you had told me I had to go back to that rehearsal table again," says Amy Morton, a Tony nominee for her work as Barb Weston, the eldest sister, and now a directing staffer on the tour, "I would have been like, 'Are you kidding me?' That play was so physically and emotionally grueling. I was inside that woman for far too long."
Anyone who saw Letts at the many award ceremonies during the spring and summer of 2008 saw a man wrestling with the rush of conflicted emotion. For an Oklahoma-raised actor-writer who'd hitherto been known for edgy, fringe-style plays such as "Bug" and "Killer Joe," and who had subsequently spent a number of years struggling to find sufficiently satisfying acting or writing work in Los Angeles, there was the headiness of sudden and colossal mainstream success as a playwright, combined with the equally sudden shock of the death of his father from lung cancer, a battle fought in part on a Broadway stage. Dennis Letts, the first actor to play the fallen patriarch Beverly Weston, died in February 2008, just a couple of months into the Broadway run.
"Tracy was incredibly close to his dad," says Morton, adding that it's been a "Greek couple of years."
On the day he heard about the Pulitzer, Letts described himself as "happy, sad." "My dad," he said, heavily, "was much more sure of this than me."
In the press room at the Tony Awards, Letts stared out at the assembled journalists as though he were in a fog. "I think," he said, "I am a little in shock." He acted accordingly.
But although Letts, 44, remains a demonstrably complicated personality, these days he seems happier and more relaxed in an adopted city he has called home for most of the last two decades. He has bought a house in Chicago's arty Bucktown neighborhood with his girlfriend, Chicago actress Nicole Wiesner. On a summer afternoon, he enjoys shooting the breeze and handicapping the upcoming theater seasons in Chicago and New York. And he has a second and much lighter play, "Superior Donuts," opening on Broadway this fall. Thus Letts achieves the very rare playwriting feat of following a play by himself in the same Broadway theater.
"On the closing night of 'August' I could wave at the doorman and say, 'See you soon,' " Letts says. "It was nice."
On its face, "Superior Donuts," a light comedy starring Michael McKean about a motley crew of cops and immigrants interacting with the aging hippie proprietor of a faded old-time snack shop in the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown, looks like a strange choice for a Broadway transfer. As directed by Tina Landau, it is a genial, nostalgic and cheerfully local play -- an uncharacteristically sweet homage to Letts' adopted city of Chicago and the fast-fading culture of community-oriented urban businesses. "The warmth of the play," said Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and an admirer of the script, "was really quite unusual for Tracy."
It is as if Letts set out to write a play as far removed as possible from "August: Osage County," a wrenching, disturbing play populated by a viciously coldblooded crowd.
"I am certainly surprised that this is the situation in which we find ourselves," Letts said, of his rapid Broadway return with "Donuts." "It certainly wasn't written with the idea of ever going to Broadway. Certainly, the success of 'August' had something to do with it. But I think another factor is how enormously popular the show was at Steppenwolf. The show sold like hot cakes."
Letts has done a lot of work on "Donuts" since the Chicago production. "We just did a full workshop with Tina and the cast," Letts said. "I was transported back to the time when I was writing it. I don't know how I got it done during that crazy time with my dad. I was going through all that. I had to leave rehearsal to accept the Pulitzer Prize. I had to leave rehearsal to go to the Tony Awards. The process got abbreviated. I put some Band-Aids on it and made it good enough. And now I'm taking the Band-Aids off. I'm still working on it."
"I think Tracy is increasingly clear-eyed about his work," says Martha Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf. "He is ambitious for it, but he also understands the difference between those two plays, that 'August' set a precedent in people's minds that 'Superior Donuts' won't answer, nor was it intended to."
One could argue that "Donuts" actually is the ideal Broadway follow-up to "August" because it is a completely different work, making comparisons with its Pulitzer Prize-winning elder brother difficult, if not absurd.
Letts' friend Michael Shannon, who was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for "Revolutionary Road" and has appeared on Chicago, New York and London stages in Letts plays including "Bug" and "Killer Joe," argues that an ability to change styles is one of Letts' biggest assets.
"Some writers endlessly repeat themselves, but Tracy's plays are all very different from one another because of the depth to which he goes to write them in the first place," Shannon says. "He does not have a speedy process. He is like a sculptor chiseling away at a gigantic, intimidating stone. It is a very serious and deliberate endeavor for him."
Letts is currently at work on a screenplay adaptation of a "kind of true-crime story" for Natalie Portman's production company (which he picked from several work offers because Portman's people were willing to come and see him in Chicago). He'll have to deal with the movie version of "August," once that picks up pace.
But as soon as the New York donuts are in the fryer, he'll go back to Steppenwolf to star in Morton's new production of David Mamet's "American Buffalo," a play set in Chicago and penned by another of the town's complicated playwriting creations.
"Jeffrey Richards, the producer, keeps telling me I am a Broadway playwright," Letts says. "No. I am a playwright who happens to have a second play going to Broadway. I do not anticipate that I will ever have another play on Broadway. I mean it. If the tide of critical opinion were to turn against me, I still have Steppenwolf. I still have a home. Most artists don't have that."
'August: Osage County'
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Call for exceptions. Ends Oct. 18.
Price: $20 to $80
Contact: (213) 972-4400