Sunday, June 7, 2009

Theater Review: Dennehy and Gugino in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms”

From the moment that adolescent farmboy Eben Cabot and his newly arrived, not-much-older stepmother, Abby, locked eyes on each other, you could forget about all their subsequent protestations of hatred.

The heat from the stage at the St. James Theatre was palpable, as if an electric current had passed between these two people, with an almost animal attraction overtaking their need to manipulate and dominate. Transfixed in their places onstage, they were goners, and whether they admitted it to themselves or not, an ancient triangular love affair was about to be reenacted in their 19th-century New England farmhouse.

For the last generation or so, directors have been trying to pull the moss off the early, more experimental works of Eugene O’Neill, America’s first great playwright, with mixed results. More often than not, the Robert Falls-directed production I saw of the 1924 tragedy Desire Under the Elms—at the show’s final performance two weeks ago—succeeded, largely because of moments like the one I just described.

My major disappointment had nothing to do with the play, but rather the audience at the St. James Theatre—or, rather, the one that never came to this challenging but worthwhile production. All around me in the mezzanine section were row upon row of empty seats—not unlike the performance of Rent I witnessed late in its long run.

Yes, the show’s inexplicable shutout from the major Tony Award nominations a few weeks ago undoubtedly shortened its initial projected run by nearly two months. Moreover, it’s easy to attribute this sorry spectacle to the recession, but considering the severity of the downturn, other Broadway shows hadn’t done this badly. In fact, as reported by The New York Times, total Broadway box office receipts edged up slightly for the 2008-09 season.

You have to wonder, then, if a show such as this—featuring major, talented actors like Brian Dennehy and Carla Gugino, riding the crest from good buzz out of town (at Chicago’s Goodman Theater)—can’t make it, what hope does other dramatic fare have?

It has been more than 30 years since I’d read Desire Under the Elms, and, like many, if not most, in the audience, I’d never seen it performed onstage. If memory serves me correctly, the number of speaking parts was a good deal longer in the original text than the five roles here. If that’s the case, Falls admirably scaled the play down to the tight, intimate dimensions that really matter for this drama.

Clocking in at 100 minutes counting intermission, this was not the baggy, patience-testing creative product that made O’Neill the Theodore Dreiser of American drama. That’s not to stay that Falls didn’t commit some missteps along the way.

Perhaps in an attempt to make this story a bit more contemporary, Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” plays in the background in one scene, and in her bright-red dress and nylon stockings, Abby would have been regarded as a visitor from another planet in the 1850s New England setting of this play rather than the incendiary presence clearly intended by O’Neill.

But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise worthy production. A sterling cast can help obscure a galaxy of sings against the commandments of drama, and in the three who anchored this production, the ghost of O’Neill would have been delighted—as much as his mordant Celtic soul was capable of that emotion—by what transpired at the St. James.

Start with Dennehy, who, since Jason Robards’ passing, might now be the premiere American interpreter of O’Neill. In the last decade, he’s tackled Hughie, A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, and, perhaps the most acclaimed of all these productions, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (an all-star vehicle also featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard).

Now, he is probably at the best time to carry off the physically demanding role of Ephraim Cabot, a patriarch powerful enough to subdue a son five decades his junior in a wrestling match but vulnerable enough to worry (rightly so!) about pleasing the comely young bride he’s brought home. As Ephraim, Dennehy recoiled in bewilderment over Abby’s rejection of his advances. The suddenly downcast eyes told everything we needed to know about the loss of virility—and of the concomitant ability to dominate—he dreads.

Nearly a decade ago, Mary-Louise Parker pulled out of a commitment to Desire on Broadway so that she could do Proof. That decision didn’t turn out badly at all, but it’s interesting to speculate how well she might have pulled it off had she elected to go with her first impulse.

Not that Gugino needs to dread the comparison. The actress brought more than sensuality to her role: she summoned the hunger and wistfulness of a character who knew only want as a child. Those two qualities help redeem Abby from O’Neill’s somewhat misogynist delineation of the character.

Gugino makes you withhold judgment on whether she’s really abandoned her desire for this house—the same that Eben craved enough that he bought off two older stepbrothers for their claims to it.

As Eben, Pablo Schreiber might have had the trickiest role of all. When you watch his confused, lust-driven young man follow Abby downstairs to the house’s parlor, where his mother, worn down by Ephraim’s selfish demands, died, the Freudian psychology in the setting couldn’t be more plain. The way Eben tries to make out the intentions of this ghost will remind you of nobody so much as Psycho’s Norman Bates. (Indeed, Anthony Perkins starred as the overly sensitive, mother-obsessive young man in both films.)

Schreiber found the key to Eben in the youth’s relationship with his father—a man he blames for the death of his mother, and one he wants to undercut and supplant. After Eben finally gets over his doubts about Abby’s intentions and sleeps with her, Schreiber had him crow like a rooster, not even bothering to conceal his triumph over his confused and cuckolded father.

In framing the play, Falls seized on a line by one of the Cabot stepbrothers: “stone walls to fence us in.” It takes a hard, ruthless man to think he can make a living from this unyielding soil—someone like Ephraim Cabot. Scenic designer Walt Spangler did wonders in fashioning mass rock formations on either side of the stage, powerfully suggesting that the Cabots’ fates are, literally, set in stone.

The two stepbrothers begin the play by pulling these rocks, grunting all the way, only to stop in order to remove the entrails of a pig—an acknowledgement that a bloody sacrifice of another kind would take place by the end of the performance.

For all his artistic faults, O’Neill never turned down a challenge, preferring to fail big than to succeed small. Even as directors puzzle how to make his plays more audience-friendly, his example—using all the resources of the theater to make audiences feel and tremble over the fall of man—remains unexpectedly relevant for 21st-century Broadway.

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