Letts, Pretending

Special Features   Letts, Pretending In his new drama August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts mines personal history to reveal some universal truths about family.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Tracy Letts, a name nearly unknown in these parts, may well be the most distinguished theatrical hyphenate to come out of Chicago since David Mamet allowed his penchant for playwriting to overtake his passion for performing. Unlike Mamet, though, Letts won't be burying any talents. He has every intention of juggling both these worlds throughout life.

"I started out writing — as far back as I can remember — and sorta dropped it, or at least didn't pursue it professionally, as I got more and more into acting in the theatre," he says. "Then it just became a natural thing to marry the two and start writing for the stage. I don't love one more than the other — they appeal to different sides of me — so I imagine that I will always act. It helps a lot. I think one makes me better at the other. Frankly, I'm surprised more actors don't write because certain skills are common to both disciplines."

A staple at Steppenwolf, where he has been a perpetually spinning member of the ensemble since 2002, Letts will make his first mark on Broadway as the author of August: Osage County, which opens Dec. 4 at the Imperial Theatre. His New York acting debut was made Off-Broadway two years ago when he spent two months at the Barrow Street Theatre playing critic Kenneth Tynan, the brainy buffer between Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, in Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow. Initially, Letts sneaked into NYC — as a writer — with Killer Joe in 1994, at the 29th Street Rep, then four years later at the Soho Playhouse in a starry (Scott Glenn, Amanda Plummer) reprise.

Straddling his playwriting bows here was Man From Nebraska, a play that has yet to make it to New York despite the fact that after premiering in Chicago in 2003 it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has received a dozen regional renditions since. Coming from the creator of the blood-splattered Killer Joe and the flesh-crawling Bug, it's the last thing you'd expect — a sharp right to the human heart. "It's about a middle-aged insurance salesman in Lincoln, Nebraska — happily married with two grown daughters — who awakens one night to find that he no longer believes in God, that he questions his faith. It's a quieter, more introspective piece than the earlier plays, and I'm fond of it. It's about something — well, as they all are — that I was thinking a lot about at the time. I hope New York audiences get a chance to see it at some point."

Man From Nebraska propelled the Playwright From Oklahoma (Durant — population: 15,000) into a different direction of drama and spurred him to return to his rustic roots, to give his family tree a sound shaking, see what fell out and how that could be augmented with conflicts that have come up during his chosen life in the theatre.

August: Osage County is Letts' Long Day's Journey Into Oklahoma, a dysfunctional-family drama in three rounds (acts, actually — the way sagas would sprawl out and enthrall when O'Neill, Williams, Albee and Shepard were investigating their eccentric elders).

Here you see how it's the work of an actor who was Tom in The Glass Menagerie and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — roles that resonate in Letts' writing. "I'm sure they do," he allows. "Mr. Williams, Mr. Albee — phenomenal playwrights. To crawl in and do those plays gives you a sense of how they work. But influences are a touchy thing. You don't know where they start or stop, how much is conscious or unconscious."

The play invites comparisons, but, in Variety's view, "it doesn't crumble under the weight of these parallels," and there are recognizable truths running around in the play unreferenced, so names were changed — to the Westons — to protect the hardly innocent.

"It's a story that has been with me for a long time. My grandfather committed suicide when I was ten, and my reflections as an adult back on that time are just very evocative for me. I always felt it is the stuff of drama. Without being too precious about my past and crying on everybody's shoulder, it struck me that elements of that story are universal and a lot of people could identify. I'm hoping that's part of the play's power."

All is not quiet on the Weston front. Papa takes a powder after one scene — he hires a Native American housekeeper to look after things — and then the daughters descend; Letts lets the sisters come in threes, like Chekhov's, to a full house right out of Long Day's Journey Into Night (the druggie mom, the boozed-up failed-artist of a father, the warring siblings). And ruling the roost, taking no prisoners (but a little delight in eating her young) is a pill-popping, cancer-ridden matriarch with a malicious mouth on her like Albee's Martha.

There is one thing Letts left out of this semi-autobiography: himself. "I don't write for myself to act. I don't think I'd be good at either job if I tried to do both. If I were the writer, I'd be saying, 'Why can't he act this any better?' And, if I were the actor, I'd be saying, 'Who wrote this shit?' It's better — for me — to wear just one hat at a time. I've always had an innate sense that if you stick to one thing and do it right, then everything else will take care of itself — and it certainly has."

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