Tracy Letts one my favorite contemporary playwrights. Wikipedia notes that he has written 5 original plays. I have seen three of them on stage and have now seen film adaptations of two. His plays are dark; often comically so but dark nonetheless. They are not for the feint-of-heart theater goer looking for an evening of light entertainment. They are challenging and visceral.
I purchased a copy of his 1996 play, “Bug” in Toronto 7-8 years ago. It was in a display of plays that were in production in the area. I’d never heard of the play but it sounded like something I might like. I did.
‘Dark’ does not being to describe this play. The characters are at once familiar and totally alien. The protagonist is clearly paranoid but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government hasn’t been performing horrific experiments on him. His apparent madness in compelling and, as the play progresses, you see the other characters respond, sometimes by joining him in his increasing altered perception of reality.
The comparison may be influenced by my having read the play for the first time in Toronto but I found it to be similar in style to a Canadian playwright whose work I admire; George Walker. I also thought it had some stylistic similarity to Sam Shephard’s “Fool for Love”.
A couple years later, on a business trip to Seattle, I saw a production of the play by a local company called Theater Schmeater. I was not disappointed. The film version came out about the same time; directed by William Friedkin (of “The Exorcist” fame) and with a screenplay by the playwright. I thought it was very well done though, for some reason, not as powerful as the stage production. On film it seemed more like a ‘horror’ story than a psychological drama. In that context it was easier to believe and therefore less dramatic.
Mr. Letts’ most recent and, by far, most successful play is “August: Osage County”. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony for Best Play of 2008, it is a family drama set in Oklahoma. I was fortunate enough to see the play with an outstanding cast led by Estelle Parsons. Far more accessible, the play is great theater in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and William Inge. Mr. Letts has already completed the screen adaptation and the film, with a cast including no less than Meryl Steep and Julia Roberts is in the works.
“Killer Joe” is an earlier play. Written in 1993, it is rougher but also funnier. The drama is less abstract than “Bug” but with a cast of characters that don’t feel as familiar as the Westen family in “August: Osage Country”. These are real people but, happily, not people you actually know. There are plot twists and mysteries but there is no uncertainty about reality. It is a little disturbing how quickly the world in which these characters live begins to make sense.
I saw a stage production of “Killer Joe” in Phoenix a couple years ago mounted by a local group called “Nearly Naked Theater” It was extremely well done. The film version in now playing the ‘art house’ circuit. Like “Bug” the film is directed by William Friedkin with a screenplay by the playwright. Unlike, “Bug” however, this play is stronger on film than it was on the stage. There are parts of this film that are uncomfortable to watch and it earned every bit of its NC-17 rating. Harper’s Other Dad, who enjoyed the stage version, did not like the movie adaptation. The violence is graphic. There are no sex scenes in the usual sense but the sexual content that is present is even more shocking.
I saw the film at a Saturday matinee where I expected a small crowd of artsy, alternative-lifestyle types. What I saw was a sold out theater of Scottsdale retirees. The average age skewed north of 60. And yet as shocking as some of the content was, I saw no evidence of people leaving the theater and no particularly derogatory comments as the theater emptied after the show. I thought that was surprising.