Letts knows how to write ‘juicy’

'Osage' playwright takes a bow at Steppenwolf

CHICAGO — “I know what makes a role juicy for me when I’m playing it,” says Tracy Letts.

Letts also knows how to craft juicy roles as a playwright, because he populates his 13-character play, “August: Osage County,” with a slew of them.

In fact, what made the show a standout at the Steppenwolf in Chicago, and launched a whiplash-fast Rialto transfer slated to start previews at the Imperial in October, is the combination of a promising new American play and a production that fits its large ensemble as if it were made for them.

Which it was.

Steppenwolf wanted to commission Letts, a member of the theater’s ensemble, after the theater had preemed his previous play, “Man From Nebraska,” in 2003. Artistic director Martha Lavey chose the expansive story of “August: Osage County” — about a multigenerational Oklahoma family that starts tearing each other apart after the disappearance of its patriarch — over a more modest, two-character play Letts had also pitched.

In an age of tight budgets and the artistic frugality that necessarily follows, there aren’t a lot of theaters out there seeking to create plays with more than a dozen parts in them.

“What writer currently has the temerity,” asks Lavey, “to come to some theater and say, ‘You’ve got to do my 13-character play, three acts, three hours and 20 minutes. Go.’?”

It was a decision made not with Broadway in mind but focused on Steppenwolf itself, which has a core mission of finding opportunities for the active members of its 41-person ensemble.

“That becomes the argument for everybody going out of their way to create a play that requires that scale,” Lavey says. “We wanted to cast as many ensemble members as possible.”

While Letts didn’t write the play with specific actors in mind, he knew Steppenwolf had a deep bench of people to play middle-age Midwesterners. In fact, the dearth of roles created for these thesps was one of Letts’ inspirations. Much of the ensemble, Letts had come to discover, “have the same small-town history that I do, as do a lot of the people coming through our doors. I’m from Oklahoma, the theater’s in Illinois, those are the stories I’m telling.”

In addition to providing a means of nurturing Letts as a playwright and finding opportunities for its brand of ensemble acting, Lavey and executive director David Hawkanson decided several years ago to place new work as a defining element of the theater, and even programmed the entire 2005-06 season, Steppenwolf’s 30th anniversary season, with premiere plays.

While some of the shows were well received critically and traveled to Off Broadway (Cormac McCarthy’s “The Sunset Limited”) or other regional productions (Bruce Norris’ “The Unmentionables”), single ticket sales struggled, and subscriptions for the following season took a substantial hit. On the positive side, says Hawkanson, “We got better at developing new plays.”

It was in the middle of that anniversary season that Letts delivered the first draft of “August: Osage County.”

“August” represents a significant leap in scope and scale for Letts. His first play, “Killer Joe,” was a five-character play set in a Dallas trailer park. Then came “Bug,” a quirky-creepy character-based thriller about a paranoid war vet and a grieving mother. Both of those works had solid runs Off Broadway and in London.

“Man From Nebraska,” which became a finalist for the Pulitzer, followed a man’s existential crisis, and marked a clear stylistic shift, with its more thoughtful, meditative bent.

“August” takes that leap with ambitious underlying themes, particularly the generational conflict between the so-called Greatest Generation and the baby boomers, but it remains first and foremost a comic drama rife with drugs, pedophilia and even incest.

In Chicago, the show opened with only 10% of available single tickets sold, following the pattern of anemic sales that had dogged Steppenwolf’s prior premieres. Then the glowing reviews hit newsstands, praising the acting and comparing the play to American classics like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the buzz started building. By the end of the run, it was selling at 105% capacity and helped turn around Steppenwolf’s expected season deficit.

Both nonprofit and commercial producers quickly came calling.

With no stars and an unknown title, the show remains a commercial challenge. “We were very upfront that this was going to be a challenging show to market,” says Steve Traxler, who will produce with partners Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian and Jerry Frankel. “Our hope is that Broadway audiences want to see a serious new drama by an American playwright that is being compared to tremendous pieces of work historically.”

Producers considered transferring the show in the spring, with the idea that Tony noms and maybe even Pulitzer recognition could drive sales. As with the London-to-New York transfer of “The History Boys,” which Traxler was also involved in, keeping the ensemble together seemed essential.

“There was never any question but to go intact with the Steppenwolf company,” says Traxler. “Had we waited for the spring, we don’t know what would have happened with the cast, and we don’t know if a theater would have been readily available.”

Moving quickly also will cut down some costs. The show will move to New York with a budget of $2.5 million, needing only limited rehearsal time prior to bowing at the 1,400-seat Imperial, which in fall 2008 will be home to Elton John tuner “Billy Elliot.”A 16-week engagement is planned, although there’s hope word of mouth will extend the show.

It’s a proud moment for Steppenwolf, returning to Broadway for the first time since 2001’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.””If people outside the city have impressions of Steppenwolf,” says Lavey, “they’re often very favorable, but often they’re borrowed from productions of 10 or even 20 years ago. This is absolutely current with what Steppenwolf is today as an artistic entity.”

Steppenwolf will also produce Letts’ next play, called “Superior Donuts.” This one has just two parts, but they’re sure to be juicy.

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