Posts Tagged ‘o’neill’

Mini-review – The Hairy Ape – Old Vic Theater

November 10, 2015

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.)

Review – Ah, Wilderness! – Young Vic

April 22, 2015

I’ve really warmed up to Eugene O’Neil since seeing his Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo some years ago. I’d previously thought of him as a writer of go America rah-rah schmaltz (based upon reading the script for Wilderness in high school, apparently), but now I see him as a modernist with a well-honed ability to create characters with real depth. Maybe that’s the secret to the great American dramatists of the 20th century – being born to families that were deeply, deeply messed up, providing them with rich source material to build their semi-fictions upon. However, there’s none of his usual grimness visible in this play, which is quite accurately described as his “warmest, most delightful play” (some slight references to alcoholism do NOT take it to the “dark undertow” stage). Instead, what you get is a family where the mom (Janie Dee) is absolutely devoted to and protective of her children – while being aware of their faults – and a father (Martin Marquez) who claims to be willing to wallop his offspring and yet chooses to give up the main advertiser for his paper rather than punish his son unjustly. How can _that_ be a dark world?

The Young Vic’s Ah, Wilderness is set in a clapboard house with sand spilling through every door into a pool on the stage, where Old Eugene (David Annen) watches his younger self relive his memories. Now, Old Eugene is not a character in the play – he’s used to read bits of description and to occasionally show emotion in response to things that happen – but he effectively adds layers of sadness and nostalgia to what happens, in this house that’s full of memories and near the beach, the ocean sand covering nearly everything a metaphor for all of the overlayers of years and passing time. Young Eugene – er, Richard Miller (George MacKay) – is a hysterically overemotional teenager who reminded me of nothing so much as a modern day Goth kid. Who’d think the trappings of rebellious, literate teenagerdom would be so exactly the same in 1906 as in 2015? He’s reading Oscar Wilde, talking about taking the rich away in tumbrils to the guillotine while waving around his copy of Carlyle’s French Revolution … all he needs to do is start carrying on about Morrisey and wearing eyeliner. My friend and I were practically in tears in the opening scene, as his family debates Richard’s tastes in literature while butchering one British word after another (I thought “gaol” was pronounced “gay-el” as well before I moved here) and an elder brother declares to all that Wilde’s great crime was bigamy. Oh God. When Essie Miller came in at the start of the scene complaining about her son’s “awful books” I would have never thought I’d have read all of them or that it would be the springboard for such a moment of shared literacy (and laughs) amongst the audience. (For details on his horrible books, this author did all the homework for me.)

For good comedy, not having everything be funny is key: and underneath this play is the pain of lost love, suffered temporarily by Richard and eternally by his uncle Sid Davis (Dominic Rowan), both of whom address their ills with alcohol. Sid’s bender with his brother in law leads to an uproarious dinner scene with Sid chewing on lobster shells and making fun of both his sister and her husband to great effect; but his funniness loses its edge when we realize he’s drunk himself into unemployment and out of a marriage both he and Lily (Susannah Wise – dad Miller’s sister) want. These four characters – the mother, the father, his sister, her brother – are all likeable and yet none of them perfect; on stage, their interactions speak of lives that have touched each other for ages before and will continue to be entwined into the future. They’re masterpieces of writing and absolutely pitch perfect on stage, each one of them, the actors inhabiting them as if they carry them around like their own skin when they walk out of the building.

In fact, the only real complain I could have about this show is that it’s a bit too happy. Nobody I know has an entire family familiar with Omar Khayyam and able to leap to the defense of an overreaching youth on an instant’s notice; running out of work, especially when you live in a small town (and have been run out of your work) is much more of a tragedy than this show plays it. And we all know that this is not his life he’s showing us, and somewhere bubbling under the giggles is the wretched truth brought out in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But this is the play that rewrites the facts of O’Neill’s life to find comedy and warmth; and there’s more than enough misery out there, in real life as well as on the stage, that I think it’s okay for us to take the opportunity Natalie Abrami has given us to sit back and enjoy ourselves for a while. Here, it’s the Fourth of July; put your rose-colored glasses on and join me on the moonlit beach and let’s watch the fireworks for a while and just live in the moment.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 20th, 2015. It continues through May 23rd. I suggest sitting so that you’re slightly on the right side of teh stage – if you’re facing it – so you can see Sid’s face during the dinner scene. This play is an excellent value at £20 and a good night out at £35, with bonus value if you want to have a good laugh and walk out feeling like the world isn’t such a bad place after all.)

Review – Strange Interlude – National Theater

May 29, 2013

After one out of the ballpark hit and one in the gutter miss with O’Neill, I found myself both eager and afraid of seeing Strange Interlude, his Pulitzer-prize winning 1928 play. Would it be a work of glorious insight into the human condition, or a self-indulgent piece of tripe that left me squirming anxiously for a chance to run out of the theater?

Well … kind of yes to both, but more on the side of “squirming,” Strange Interlude was an unintentional comedy that had me wanting to reach into the grave and wrap my hands around Eugene’s dessicated neck. Most of this was due to one stylistic choice: the speaking of thoughts, as asides, by ALL of the characters, nearly constantly. Imagine a man saying to us (the audience), “Oh, no, it’s her dad, the hearthearted bastard!” then turning to “her dad” and saying, “Phil! Wonderful to see you!” It’s hard not to find this funny, and while, perhaps, the audience of the 1920s found the psychological insights allowed by this non-realistic narrative to be deeply revealing, we, the audience at the National last night, couldn’t help but chuckle, guffaw, snicker, giggle, titter, and laugh uproariously at what seemed to be genuinely meant monologueing. It all began to feel like a parody, very much in the style of The Thirty-nine Steps, an effect not helped by the non-monologuing characters needing to pause and pretend that it was natural for people to take three minutes to think to themselves, “silently,” in the middle of a paragraph of dialogue.

And, well, then there were the characters, and the situations they were in. Consider Nina Leeds (Anne-Marie Duff), one of the most unattractive heroines ever to grace the American stage: completely self-absorbed, more than slightly crazy, and indifferent to such approaches to life as “treating people like they matter.” Her dilemma about how to handle the likelihood of inheritable illness from her husband’s family was one that I found potentially touching in the light of the story of fatal familial insomnia a.k.a. inheritable Mad Cow Disease – but her decision to abort so quickly seemed to have a bit more of eugenics to it than common sense. And the stiff, semi-hysterical way her mother-in-law (Geraldine Alexander) addressed her – it was hard to believe either of these women were supposed to be real people.

In fact, the entire lot of side-speaking, self-questioning, irritating people that made up this show seemed to be all cut out of cardboard, and for as realistic as they were, I could have been watching dancing paper dolls. I understand this was a first preview, and there were a couple of slips with dialogue, but, really, this wasn’t a case of poor or unrehearsed acting: these people were all despicable because they were written that way. How audiences could have stood this when it was new I have no idea; but when the character who’s meant to be a moron is the most believable (and sympathetic), you know something has gone terribly wrong. I mean, seriously: we were reduced to applauding the scenery because it was something nice (I didn’t clap; I’d been laughing to heartily to endure any more physical effort). I stuck it through to the end out of a perverse desire to say I’d made it through all three hours and twenty-five minutes of it; but if you aren’t in the position of feeling like you need to do something to compensate yourself for the money you’d wasted on tickets, save yourself the trouble and just buy a copy of the script. This turkey should have got the chop long ago.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013. The play continues at the National through August 12th.)

Mini-review – Desire Under the Elms – Lyric Hammersmith

October 10, 2012

It’s been nearly a week since I shuffled out of the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Desire Under the Elms and I’ve been having a hard time getting motivated to write a review. The play is impossible to believe at any point: cartoon characters (the two half brothers are right out of Loony Toons, Yosemite Sam and Sandy), laughable dialogue (“Nature … makes ye grow bigger–like a tree,” said while “new ma” Abbie writhes on the ground with her legs open, OH GOD WHAT COULD SHE BE IMPLYING), a plot that seems better suited to a soap opera .. the whole thing was just so overwrought I couldn’t take it seriously, like a bad high school production of a Greek tragedy. I watched the characters with nearly physical pain, wondering just what in the hell Eugene O’Neill thought he was doing – creating characters he couldn’t understand enough to write words for and putting them in a situation he thought would mirror some drama by Sophocles “but in an American setting.” It was all just so horrible after the genius of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

I made it to the interval, checked my clock, and saw that I could make it through to the end with only 45 more minutes, so dragged myself back like a dog waiting for a whuppin’. Fortunately almost 10 minutes was taken up with a comic dance routine, and the end rolled around quite quickly, but not once did I ever feel a bit of sympathy for any of the characters. They were all impossible to believe in and thus impossible to care about.

And then it was over. Hurray. And now I’ve written my review and I can get on to talking about some excellent theater that is much more worth seeing than this farce. Lungs, a part of the Paines’ Plough/National Theater season at Shoreditch Town Hall, blew me out of the room. Do not miss it. It may be a day or two more before I’ve got my review up, but YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED – buy your ticket now.

(This review is for a preview performance seen on October 4th, 2012. It runs through November 10th. Lungs has its last performance on Saturday October 27th and is superior in every way.)

Mini-review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Apollo Theater

August 16, 2012

What more could you want on a lovely summer’s night than to descend into a dark room full of people fighting, abusing each other, and hitting every type of drug under the sun? Does this sound like your idea of hell … or perhaps just another weekend retreat at the family cabin?

Well, if you have a life list centered on seeing all of the classics of American theater, going to A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is exactly the right plan for a summer evening, given that after spending three hours listening to people talk about fog and heroin and madness, there’s a profound relief in knowing you’ll be going out into a moist, gentle twilight. And despite having some twenty plus years of theater-going under my belt, I can’t remember even having the opportunity to watch it before. It’s no surprise, really, given its dour nature (as Carmen says in Curtains: “I put on The Ice Man Cometh and nobody cameth!”) it’s not the kind of thing to attract the after-work hordes: so I knew that when a West End revival came along, with a money cast (i.e. David Suchet, so excellent in All My Sons, hoorah!), it was time for me to go, depressive topic be damned.

I really didn’t know too much about this show before I went (something about the mom being not quite right and it being quasi-autobiographical), so there was a lot of suspense for me in watching it play out. The setting is a dreary New England summer house, circa 1910 or so: there are cars (and streetcars) and telephones, so the feeling is of pre-war near modernity, with the whisper of the Victorian era in the air. The American “stories” of “raising yourself by the bootstraps” are here, as well as an immigrant theme (so different to hear after six years of nearly-constant British theater!); there’s also the great American fault of shameful venality. These are timeless themes, but the era is fixed as one in which certain health problems cannot be cured, and certain … other problems … are not really acknowledged. This is what the play dances around: the mom (Laurie Metcalf) has not been well, but what is the cause of her illness? And why is her family worried that she will fall prey to it again?

This might be a small mystery, but it sets the stage for a tug of war between the dad (David Suchet) and his two sons, both of whom are seen as failures by their parents. The eldest is a failed actor, the pale shadow of his father’s success; the other seems to be a generally useless occasional writer (and seems like the O’Neill stand-in). As the play goes on, you can see that all three of the men seem to hate each other to the core; yet, in that repulsive way that families have, they also love each other and are tightly bound to each other. But do they hate more than they love? This leads to the ultimate mystery, as each of the men (and even mom) become more and more abusive: why to these people spend time with each other at all? Yet unlike many of the plays I’ve seen recently where I felt trapped in a party with a bunch of horrible people I couldn’t wait to escape (Ecstasy, Chicken Soup with Barley), the rifts revealed in this family were so bloody and gaping I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It reminded me of Ibsen, where the secrets in the relationships are slowly revealed to the audience’s breathless horror. Really, I just loved it, and the ending line was a diamond ripping silk. Aaaaahhhh. And we escaped.

While both of the sons seem perfect in their roles, I had some questions about both Suchet and Metcalf. First, overall, the accents: would Americans of 1910 really have sounded just like they do on TV today? I’d expect that when angry the father (James) might have slipped into a tiny bit of a brogue, but he never sounded like anything other than a clipped accent, non-determinate American: not even clearly a New Englander, or a New Yorker, but sort of a mid-Western/California type. It’s exactly how he sounded in All My Sons, but I don’t think it felt right for the era: it was David Suchet, but, well, okay, it’s David Suchet in the role of James the dad, and he was still good to watch even if he never succeeded in leaving himself behind.

Metcalf, also, seemed terribly modern despite her hair and lace cape, and was occasionally too … buttery? I guess I wanted a bit more of a Southern belle or something, a reflection in her acting of the convent in which the character had grown up. At the beginning I found her too stiff; when she was slipping, her tones were robotic; but, ultimately, as she went down the rabbit hole, she took me right with her and I wasn’t watching Laurie Metcalf, I was watching a beloved mother collapsing in front of a son who loved her dearly and was bleeding with sorrow about his inability to keep her from sliding away from him. I saw in these horrible, messed up people a universal reflection of every unhappy family, and certainly of the unhappy family I had been a part of; and I was completely bought into the play and into the text. A Long Day’s Journey it was called but when it started moving into that eternal night I could no more walk way from it then any of these people could walk away from each other. I was entranced. In the end, I agreed, this is truly a classic play, and I was glad to see it, thrilled with the truth of its writing, yet just a tiny bit grateful when its ending came. There was no release for this miserable family, but they gave me wings to soar, out into a summer twilight of quiet London streets, grateful for the life that had let me see such a great play done so well.

(This review is for a performance seen on Thursday, Ugust 9th, 2012. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues at the Apollo through August 18th. There are many deals available.)