Before putting my recent New York trip to rest, I want to comment on the two other plays that I saw on Broadway last week. On the surface they couldn’t have been more different: one a searingly dramatic three-and-a-half hour play about a large, dysfunctional family in Pawhuska, Oklahoma; the other, a revival of one of the most popular musicals of all time, based on the memoirs of a stripper from Seattle. And yet the underlying themes and characters in both plays were strikingly similar. Both pieces focus on the downside of mother love—what happens when a mother’s own unresolved issues bubble up to create a toxic brew that slowly poisons every family relationship.
The centerpiece of Tracy Letts’ brilliant new play, “August: Osage County,” is matriarch Violet Weston, played with poignant ferocity by Deanna Dunagan. Violet is a mess. Her husband has gone missing and is presumed dead, and she is a pill-popping, often delirious, meaner-than-shit woman whose favorite sport seems to be destroying her grown children and making sure they can’t function in the world on their own. The play emigrated from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre with virtually the entire cast intact so I had very high expectations and I was not disappointed. I saw the play on Sunday with my sister and we were exhausted when it began since we’d been up all night at the “Saturday Night Live” taping and after-party. As the play began, I was seriously concerned that I’d be snoring before the end of the first scene and I wondered how on earth I’d ever be able to follow the convoluted relationships and plot points when I could barely keep my eyes open. But instead of dozing off, I found myself at the edge of my seat for over three hours, glued to the action on the stage, the sensational acting by every member of the cast, and the layering effect of one hideous “reveal” after another. Let’s just say there’s something in this play for everyone: drug and alcohol addiction, physical and emotional abuse, pedophilia, infidelity. Did I mention brother-sister incest?
At the core of all this fun is Dunagan’s Violet, a woman so abhorrent and damaged that she makes Regina Giddens in “The Little Foxes” look like Carol Brady. Mary Tyrone is Mary Poppins compared to this character, and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” seems like an optimistic Polyanna. And yet despite her histrionics, I never saw Violet as a one-dimensional character. Sure, she was an out-of-control snake, but as written and performed, you could see the emotional throughline of the character and imagine what had happened in her life to turn her into such a person. I may have said a few prayers of gratitude that I wasn’t a member of the Weston family, but I still felt for Violet, and I empathized with her pain and vulnerability even while I hated what she was doing to her loved ones. What a treat to see many of my favorite Steppenwolf stalwarts in this production including the fabulous Rondi Reed as Violet’s less overt but still vicious sister Mattie Fae, Amy Morton as Barbara, the daughter who is finally able to crawl out from her mother’s deadly shadow, and Jeff Perry as Morton’s estranged and hapless husband who’s trying to find his own voice in this viper’s nest. They were all great, and if any of you get to New York, you really need to head over to the Imperial Theatre and watch this group slicing open their wounds on the cool three-story set.
Before I left New York I was able to score a ticket to the first public preview of the new “Gypsy” revival starring Patti LuPone. I’ve seen many versions of this show: Angela Lansbury in a 1970s Chicago production, Bernadette Peters in the 2003 Broadway revival, Rosalind Russell in the film, Bette Midler in the TV version. I’ve heard recordings of Ethel Merman’s original Mama Rose and Tyne Daly’s 1989 take on the character. All of these women brought their own strengths to the role and added meaningful nuances to their interpretations of the ultimate stage mother. So would it be rude to suggest that every living woman who has ever played this part should have her vocal chords voluntarily removed in deference to Patti LuPone’s perfectly rendered and devastatingly emotional mastery of this role?
The signs in front of the theatre were dead-on: “Patti LuPone in the role she was BORN to play!” And yet, even though LuPone is (very surprisingly) the oldest actress ever to star in “Gypsy” on Broadway, I’m glad she waited until now—she seems so well seasoned for the role, with a lifetime of successes and hard knocks informing every gesture and sigh. Kendall and I saw her in “Sweeney Todd” a few years ago and then in concert at UCLA last year, and she was fantastic, but climbing into the theatrical minefield that is Rose has allowed her to reach new heights. Apart from hitting notes that the other Mama Roses could only dream of, LuPone brings a quality to the role that allows us to see more deeply inside Rose’s machinations. We hate and love her at the same time because we see ourselves and our loved ones in her. We understand better than we ever have her desperate need to correct her own shattered dreams by foisting them on her daughters. This is a ferocious Rose but also a vulnerable, sexy, and occasionally self-aware one. Even Arthur Laurents, the man who wrote the book for “Gypsy” and is directing this production at the age of 90, said that Patti LuPone is pulling stuff out of this character that he’s never seen before.
Poor Kendall and Leah, I’ve been singing “Gypsy” tunes nonstop since I got home, but at least I’m no longer trying to emulate that Ethel Merman screech.
Some people sit on their butts,
Got the dream, yeah, but not the guts.
That’s living for some people,
For some hum-drum people I suppose.
Well, they can stay and ROT!
But not Rose!
Has there ever been a better score for a Broadway musical? And has there ever been a gayer post by me? Let’s face it: Patti LuPone + Gypsy = Gay as a Mad Hatter. But if that’s what it takes to see this amazing show, we should all come out, loud and proud! The crowd at the St. James Theatre last week was probably 60% gay but I think everyone in the theatre was gay that night, reveling in the exploits of Rose, Louise, and Baby June.
And if you’re real good,
I’ll make you feel good,
I want your spirits to climb.
So, let me entertain you
And we’ll have a real good time!
The show doesn’t officially open for two more weeks but it was fun being there for the first preview. When LuPone made her entrance from the audience (“Sing out, Louise!”) there was such a thunderous applause that all of the actors had to freeze in place for several minutes. I could see the young kids in the cast breaking character and looking out into the audience with shock at such a response, not knowing what to do. In addition to LuPone, I’ve never seen a better Louise or June than in this version. Despite the title, it’s Rose’s show, no question about it, but Laura Benanti made the transformation from overlooked tomboy Louise to acclaimed high-class stripper Gypsy Rose Lee believable and poignant. She was a perfect match for Patti LuPone. I was less impressed with Boyd Gaines’ Herbie but I’ve always thought that Herbie was a thankless role and the least developed one in the play. The three aging strippers who sing “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” often run away with the show and this group was no exception, especially the remarkable Alison Fraser as Tessie Tura who made us believe in the humanity of that funny character as we never have before.
Midway through the first act there was some kind of disturbance coming from the mezzanine level. Apparently one Patti LuPone fanatic was so overcome by seeing his idol on stage that he lost it (I’m guessing he had problems in addition to his LuPone obsession) and started grabbing other audience members and talking very loudly. It got so bad that former “American Idol” runner-up, Katherine McPhee, sitting in the same row as this lunatic, had to go out to the lobby and call security. The man was then dragged away. Oy.
But the real drama occurred toward the end of the musical. Patti LuPone was so great in this part that she brought the house down…literally! It was during the emotional scene in Gypsy’s dressing room when the stripper is being confronted by her bitter mother. LuPone was gearing up to begin the tour-de-force, “Rose’s Turn” when there was suddenly a large crash in the balcony followed by a woman’s scream. Every head turned towards the back of the theatre but we couldn’t see anything. I noticed the actors, in the middle of a very intense scene, darting their eyes past the floodlights trying to figure out what was going on, but there was no way to know and no one told them to stop. This was followed by the sound of a woman sobbing. For a minute I thought someone had fallen out of the balcony. The show continued, LuPone was so intense during “Rose’s Turn” that she practically self-combusted, and it wasn’t until the next morning that I read in the New York Times that a 30-inch piece of metal had fallen out of a heating grate in the ceiling and hit some poor woman in the head. She was rushed away in an ambulance but I never heard anything more about her condition. Yikes, I think that woman should get a lifetime pass to the St. James Theatre and a private concert with Patti LuPone.
You’ll be swell! You’ll be great!
Gonna have the whole world on the plate!
Starting here, starting now,
Honey, everything’s coming up roses!
You can do it, all you need is a hand.
We can do it, Mama is gonna see to it!
Curtain up! Light the lights!
We got nothing to hit but the heights!
Why do the characters of Violet Weston and Rose Hovick move me so deeply? My own mother was the opposite of mean or driven, but like those two women, she had her share of troubles that were never fully resolved and which helped to define her thoughts about herself for the rest of her life. My mother was beloved by her family, her friends, and her colleagues, but unfortunately this did not erase her own feelings of inadequacy or regret for past mistakes. Although her 65 years on the planet were marked by many joyful moments, I believe that my mother died thinking that she had failed in certain parts of her life. It is that sad realization, along with my own feelings of inadequacy, that allow plays like “August: Osage County” and “Gypsy” to cut through me like a knife.
Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn?
Don’t I get a dream for myself?
Starting now it’s gonna be my turn.
Gangway, world, get off of my runway!
Starting now I bat a thousand!
This time, boys, I’m taking the bows and
Everything’s coming up roses!
Everything’s coming up roses!
This time for me!
For me! For me! For me! For me! For me!