Over the last few years, I’ve really warmed up to the work of Eugene O’Neill. There have been hits and misses, but the combined impact of Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah! Wilderness can hardly be put into words. His ability to create characters that burn into your memory as icons of pure being … it’s like they walked from the world of Plato’s Ideals into our own, casting their shadows across the entire planet of twentieth century theater.
And then, well, he’s also got what I’d consider lesser works: bombastic, lecturing, obsessed with structure and politics over character and plot. Even knowing this, I queued up for The Old Vic’s production of The Hairy Ape, which seemed, by all indicators, early enough in his career to be shackled with cement-like boots of drivel (and was promoted as being from his socialist era – how dull!). But at 90 minutes and with Bertie Carvel, well, I asked myself, how bad could it be?
This, obviously, was a question asked by many others, as I was able to get half priced second row seats on the day and much of the upper reaches of the theater was echoingly empty. The script seemed both stylized and preachy – a bit much of a combo – and the characters seemed to be drawn from a random sack of easy stereotypes (the brutal laborer – Bertie Carvel, the spoiled heiress – Rosie Sheehy, the cowardly socialist, the calculating … frankly, the only character that showed any freedom was the ape in the zoo). As Rosie Sheehy pronounced her character’s easy, snobby assessments of the struggling workers she mocked – and as these characters showed themselves to be brutal, lazy, and ignorant – I felt that O’Neill himself was struggling to make a play that was not cartoonish. He seemed to have neither sympathy for nor insight into any of the people he was attempting to create on stage, and the effect was coming off rather like a silent movie, with Snidely Whiplash expected any moment.
And yet … somehow the actor’s heightened performances started working with the overblown dialogue, and, combined with the exaggeration of the set (so much acid yellow!) and movement, we started moving into a different realm … where the unreality became surreality, and Yank’s journey from the pits of the ship to the heights of New York society started to cohere. It was meant to be extreme, it was meant to be over the top, and, well, even though the dialogue was crap if you were going for naturalism, the second you made it into Expressionism it started to work.
And this was a ride I was willing to go along for. I cast aside my need for believable characters and set down to watch a morality tale set in 1920s New York – and tremendously enjoyed myself. I loved the over the top set pieces, I loved the ridiculousness, I bought into Carvel’s exaggerations of his horribly over the top man of muscles. And then, suddenly, it was over – much in the way you might have predicted it ending from about ten minutes in – and I found, even though this play would have been intolerable on paper, somehow Richard Jones had made the damn thing work on stage. Good on you, I say, and don’t miss it – the chances you’ll ever see such an enjoyable production of this show at any point in the rest of your life is slim.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)