There are not a lot of firm bets in this year's Tony races, but it's pretty certain that Tracy Letts will need to make a little more room on his expanding awards shelf. Letts' blistering family drama August: Osage County has already received several significant awards, notably the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle award.
Maybe more remarkable than the pileup of trophies is the show's popularity with Broadway audiences. August became the rare commercial play on Broadway to recoup its investment by the season's end. And it entered the field with no stars, a little-known playwright and a daunting running time of more than three hours.
August connected with audiences as few contemporary plays do, becoming the kind of event that the ever-uncertain, ever-underappreciated theater industry sorely needs.
The popularity of August surely does speak to the play's quality and the theatrical accomplishment of its fine company of actors, three of whom are up for Tonys, as is its director, Anna D. Shapiro, and set and lighting designers. But I think it also reveals a continuing hunger on the part of audiences for drama on a grand scale, the kind of big, broad, juicy plays that were once a staple of any Broadway season but that have become increasingly rare.
Its nearly Shakespeare-size cast of 13 makes August a distinct anomaly today. One reason I flipped for August was its superabundance of characters, of conflicts, of surprising revelations and savage jokes. It's not just about bodies, or running time, of course, but of dramatic scope, theatrical invention and sheer entertainment value.
Should it win, August will become the third large-scale play in as many seasons to take home the top Tony award while appealing to wide audiences. Tom Stoppard's three-part disquisition on 19th century Russian thought and literature, The Coast of Utopia, took top honors last year, preceded by Alan Bennett's History Boys, an expansive comedy-drama about a class of British schoolboys.
Both came from Britain, where Stoppard and Bennett have the luxury of writing for a robust industry that gets significant government support. The prospects for production are far different for American playwrights, writing for not-for-profit theaters that are continually scrambling to raise funds as corporate giving dries up and subscribers drain away. Letts' freedom to think big was surely a result of his status as a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theaters, one of the few theatrical troupes left of any real size.
In the new century, theater will have to compete ever more fiercely for public attention and public dollars. Entertainment options continue to proliferate, with ease of access being an increasing allurement.
The popularity of plays like August: Osage County suggests that big audiences are willing to put down the iPod if playwrights employ all the resources of the theater — its immediacy, intimacy and imaginative scope — to put forth stories that explore the panorama of human experience.
I'm not suggesting that size alone matters, obviously. But if the American theater is to remain an aesthetically robust enterprise, a vital step may be removing the invisible shackles from the imaginations of playwrights, making it natural — making it possible — for them to dream huge once again.