‘August’ heats up U.K. stage

Critics affirm American love of 'Osage County'

U.K. theater critics do not take kindly to being told what to think. Transatlantic transfers of Broadway raves have often tanked because British critics tend to adopt a skeptical “Oh really?” attitude.

That must have induced nervousness among the producers of last week’s transfer to the National Theater of “August: Osage County.” The play’s Tony and Pulitzer prizes weren’t insurance either: “I Am My Own Wife” won both and closed in London after just one month.

So, did the U.K. press take the dysfunctional Weston family unto its bosom, or dismiss the evening as Kentucky Fried Chekhov?

Happily, the former. Several major critics have taken issue with the play’s overweening ambition to present itself as a paradigm of America, but the chorus of approval for its sheer entertainment value — and the Steppenwolf ensemble’s rip-roaring performances — has been unanimous.

There’s been more turbulence on the New York-London trip for Neil LaBute‘s “In a Dark, Dark Place.”

The new Almeida Theater production is helmed by Michael Attenborough, and in his program note, LaBute thanks him for “a fruitful collaboration,” a reference to rewrites guided by the director since the 2007 Gotham premiere.

Yet despite a more hopeful ending, the play remains suspiciously contrived for so sensitive a subject: an adult man dealing with issues of childhood abuse.

Withheld secrets are released with self-conscious timing that says far more about the need for 11th-hour plot surprises than emotional authenticity. And despite Kira Sternbach turning in a neat performance as a perkily provocative teen, the dedicated cast can’t quite make a good enough case for the play.

The reverse is true of Dominic Cooke‘s Royal Court production of “Wig Out!,” U.S. dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s play about New York drag houses that arrives hot on the (spiked) heels of its Gotham premiere at the Vineyard.

The extravagant poetry that makes McCraney’s voice so distinctive is still richly evident, but U.K. critics have denoted a lack of sustained depth in his handling of his stated subject: the way in which marginalized minorities operate hierarchies.

What’s not in doubt is the zesty production, featuring a clutch of pin-sharp performances headed by Kevin Harvey, whose magnificently focused bass voice makes him an authoritative Mother of the House of Light.

The production as a whole provides entertaining proof that Cooke is the most quietly versatile director in Britain.

This is the man whose revelatory, Olivier-winning revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” rethought the play as a fierce response to fundamentalism; who brought immense comic flair to Bruce Norris‘ social satire “The Pain and the Itch”; and lent creeping horror and unexpected power to Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece, “Rhinoceros.”

With “Wig Out!,” Cooke marshals ambitious material that borders on the schematic — too many characters, not enough stage time — but his response is to whip up individual atmospheres exceedingly quickly and place them all within a tautly controlled structure. This not only disguises some of the play’s weaknesses, it also allows McCraney’s ideas and situations to bounce off one another to best effect.

With the final part of the playwright’s “Brothers/Sisters” trilogy planned for production at the Young Vic and a two-year appointment as international writer-in-residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company, McCraney has plenty more planned for the U.K. He must be hoping Cooke will be available for at least some of that.

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