Though it's often said that Broadway producers prefer to open as close to the Tony cut-off date as possible, you seldom hear such rumors about Off-Broadway openings. But with respect to Tony Georges’s play Tricks the Devil Taught Me, one must conclude that just as much thought goes into them. There's not a more appropriate time than August for this show to premiere at the Minetta Lane Theatre, for reasons related to its story, its tone, and its overall quality.
Certainly the specter of August: Osage County haunts Georges’s look at small-town life in west Texas. Like Tracy Letts’s much-awarded Oklahoma-set epic, this one is a stinging indictment of the rural (one might even say, not without some justification, redneck) existence, suggesting that the flatness of the land and its oppressive heat have blighted the people who inhabit it. The central victim here is Betty (Beth Grant), a regular churchgoer and prayer group attendee, who’s reached her late 40s and finally realized the shambles her life has become.
Betty fell in love with, made a baby with, and married (in that order, of course) a man named Don, whom she’s still with but hasn’t been close to for 15 years. In fact, the modern-day Don (Peter Bradbury) has a much stronger relationship with his and Betty’s son, Jeremy (T.J. Linnard) — so much so that they’re concocting a plan to escape the clutches of Betty and her ramshackle home for good. It might require stealing a bit of money, and perhaps faking a car accident, but they’re just a couple of days and one UPS delivery away from the freedom they've craved their entire lives. That Jeremy has his own girlfriend and six-month-old baby is inconsequential, just as it was for Don when he vanished for a month with the Mexican woman who was six-year-old Jeremy’s babysitter (and someone he respected more deeply than mom).
The way the anger and conspiracies coalesce is intriguing, if never exactly gripping, and basically successful at probing institutional hopelessness. If Georges employs too many flashbacks to earlier and theoretically happier days, he paints a clear picture of the problems afflicting this family over almost a quarter-century; he's also unafraid to set everyone against each other, as violently and as often as necessary, to ensure that no secret goes unrevealed and no betrayal unpunished. The play is a bit threadbare for its length (just under two and a half hours), but a number of expansive and detailed scenes show that, on some level, Georges takes what he’s doing seriously.
He does not, however, go far enough. The second invocation of August comes in the form of the New York International Fringe Festival, which routinely hosts parodies of Big Works, and there are times that Tricks the Devil Taught Me feels exactly like one of those. There’s the hokey production design, with dusty lights (by Scott Davis) and a generic unit set (by Eli Kaplan-Wildmann) that could suffice for any Southwestern-located work, from True West to 9 to 5: The Musical. The secondary characters all look like big-wigged parodies from Saturday Night Live, with the portly Lorraine (Jodie Lynne McClintock), waifish Kim (Julie Jesneck, who also plays the young Betty), and wry Renee (Mary Testa) projecting broad stereotypes more than pinpoint personalities, but never completely convincing us that the humor they generate is intentional.
Grant, Bradbury, Linnard, and Desiree Rodriguez (as the house-splitting babysitter) do much better; Grant is particularly good at conveying how broken Betty has become, occasionally letting shards of her suppressed youthful energy shine through decades of accumulated disappointment. But no one emerges unscathed from the final scene. This wrap-up of every conflict is so absurdly overblown and melodramatic that despite not containing a single joke, it left the audience howling at the performance I attended. The tone is so unlike anything else in the play, you feel it must be a mistake; but it’s so rooted in the narrative, you know at the same time that it can’t be.
Because Georges directed the play himself, this must be the intended effect. But a separate director may have questioned whether its staging and delivery (both mid-Texas wide) properly expressed the work's themes, or violated them at their most vulnerable moment. Until that point, the play is passable but unmemorable; once the comedy cascade starts, the show becomes unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
That brings us to the third and final significance of this month. August is not inherently unpleasant, but it can be hot, wet, sweaty, and unpredictable, and by the end of it you can't wait for it to be over. Georges may have planned one tribute, whether comic or genuine, to August, but these are ultimately the qualities that apply most readily to Tricks the Devil Taught Me.
Tricks the Devil Taught Me