28 April 2017

"Ready, Set, Freeze!"

by Erik Piepenburg

[Among the topics I cover on Rick On Theater is how theater gets made—the jobs and processes by which a production gets on stage or a script gets written and prepped for production.  On  25 April, the New York Times published an article about the final hours of rehearsal for a new Broadway musical, Bandstand, before it’s “frozen”—when, as the article’s on-line subhead puts is,  “The director of ‘Bandstand’ had to introduce changes — then let go.”  Bandstand, with a book by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, music by Oberacker, lyrics by Taylor and Oberacker, started previews at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on 31 March and opened on 26 April for an open run.]

The show “Bandstand” counts down the hours to its final fixes.

In theater parlance, a show is “frozen” when — on a designated rehearsal day, usually about a week before opening night — no more fixes, cuts or additions are introduced. While not contractually mandated, it’s a decision and a deadline, determined by the director and the creative team, that give the cast a sense of an ending. Up to that point, the actors rehearse by day and adjust their performances for an audience that night.

To understand what happens in the hours before a show officially freezes, I spent much of last Wednesday afternoon at the Jacobs Theater with Andy Blankenbuehler, the director and choreographer of the new Broadway musical “Bandstand.” The show is a comedy-drama, with a swing-infused score by Richard Oberacker and a book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Mr. Oberacker, about a piano-playing World War II veteran (Corey Cott) who returns home to Cleveland and forms both a band and a relationship with a fellow soldier’s widow (Laura Osnes). Now in previews, the show opens on Wednesday.

The day before that rehearsal, Mr. Blankenbuehler said he’d made 100 changes — “a line, a shoulder, an arm,” as he put it. At the Paper Mill Playhouse, where “Bandstand” had its premiere in 2015, 22 minutes — including whole numbers and scenes — were cut from the show in one day, he said.

But the day this show was frozen wasn’t quite that eventful. Still, it found the high-energy Mr. Blankenbuehler, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” running from the house to the stage and back almost nonstop, making fixes until the 5 p.m. deadline.

He compared the process to a home renovation: “You build the structure, and put the tile in the kitchen and all the knobs on. We are doing that final hit list before we say to the contractor, ‘We are good, we can move in.’ ”

Dancers in the Dark

11:48 a.m. For the first fix of the day, Mr. Blankenbuehler had to figure out why light and actor weren’t gelling in a “button,” a tiny moment that signals to the audience that an element in the show is over. He consulted with the lighting designer, Jeff Croiter, on how best to handle a first-act transition in the number “You Deserve It,” set at a bar and involving the actor Drew McVety and the ensemble.

“I keep giving the actors the note to be sharper, but I’m now realizing that we are not helping them with the lights,” Mr. Blankenbuehler said. “So we are just shifting the button cue to bring the focus in just a little further.”

After huddling with Mr. Croiter, Mr. Blankenbuehler smiled as Mr. McVety, who plays the bar owner, became perfectly isolated in the light as the ensemble clapped in slow motion.

12:08 p.m. With the actors in street clothes — T-shirts, sweatpants and, for some of the women, kerchiefs — Mr. Blankenbuehler spent about 20 minutes going over individual notes. “Hold the glasses like they are real things,” he said to the assembled actors, referring to the props they handle in the show’s many nightclub scenes. “Make sure the eggs reach the table,” he told one actor. He asked Ms. Osnes to take “one step stage right” in one of her scenes.

“I appreciate that,” Ms. Osnes, a two-time Tony nominee, later said of Mr. Blankenbuehler’s attention to detail. “I think it makes the difference between great and excellent.”

How to Bow

1:10 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler spent almost an hour fleshing out a fully choreographed curtain call for the first time. He repeatedly moved actors in and out of position and asked for shifts in lighting as they tried out their cues.

He asked the actress Beth Leavel to speed up her entrance and come farther downstage center before gesturing to Ms. Osnes and Mr. Cott, who were on deck backstage. Before finishing, Mr. Blankenbuehler asked four male dancers to do a little quick step that he thought might work just as the lights come up before the bows. They learned the moves in about five minutes, and they were in the show when I saw it the next night. (It worked.)

2:05 p.m. Repeated calls of “Five, six, seven, eight” echoed throughout the theater as Mr. Blankenbuehler figured out the right way to properly light Ms. Osnes and Mr. Cott as they came into position during a number featuring an onstage microphone. He then spent about 10 minutes making tiny adjustments to a complicated-looking dance sequence, finessing over and over the dancers’ leg extensions and speed as they sang the lyrics “the boys are back.” In the show the moment lasted all of about three seconds.

Two Words

3:25 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler spent about six minutes chatting alone with Mr. Cott about a crucial scene early in “Bandstand” that pivots on two words Mr. Cott’s character says. The words were cut about two weeks ago but were recently restored.

“I asked him about whether or not it’s working,” Mr. Cott said afterward in his dressing room. “We are going to try again for tonight. That’s where this process gets fun. You have to bounce things off a live audience and see whether it works or it doesn’t work.”

Mr. Cott didn’t want to disclose what the two words were, saying they “give a big plot point away.”

What a Wiggle Will Do

4:09 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler demonstrated come-hither moves to two female dancers (far right, above) for a musical transition that involved a standup bass. He showed the women how he wanted them to wiggle their hips, give flirty little looks and shrug their shoulders as they lead the men offstage.

He liked it. They liked it.

“This transition didn’t feel like it was ending,” Mr. Blankenbuehler said as he watched the performers execute his changes. “The girls swishing their hips there tells the audience, O.K., the moment is done.”

4:34 p.m. The mood in the theater began to feel frenzied as crew members disassembled the work tables that had been set up throughout the theater.  Looking irate, Mr. Blankenbuehler loudly asked about turning off the house lights, just after they had come on. He then called for stage management to meet him upstage to discuss how best to bring a door offstage.


4:53 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler said he knew that he could keep fixing or suggesting, sometimes to the detriment of the work. “Many of my notes are overanalytic,” he said during a break. “They are me digging deeper when it’s not really necessary. The forced deadline of today is really good. It’s like someone saying, ‘Take your hands off the table, you’re done.’”

So as the countdown to 5 p.m. neared, he gathered the cast onstage for a final round of notes and thank yous.

“All the good work couldn’t have continued if walls were up at all, and there were no walls,” he said. “I owe you all alcohol.”

The cast members then huddled, stretched out their arms in a circle like football players, and shouted: “‘Bandstand’ frozen!”

At 5:03 p.m., Mr. Blankenbuehler was sitting in the house, looking exhausted but smiling. He said he was satisfied that the show was in good shape.

“We worked hard enough in advance of today that we actually finished the job,” he said.

[Past articles on the making of theater have included the work of stage managers and dance captains (“Stage Hands,” 14 January 2014), set designer Eugene Lee and wigmaker Paul Huntley (“Two (Back) Stage Pros,” 30 June 2014), and swings in a musical show (“Swings,” 9 March 2016).  That’s in addition to many articles on acting, directing, reviewing, and even a few on playwriting.)


23 April 2017

Book Reviews: Eugene O'Neill Biography

[On 18 April, I reported on The Hairy Ape on Rick On Theater. Given the importance of Eugene O'Neill to American and world theater, I think it’s worthwhile to have a look at some reviews of a recent biography of the playwright, Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts (Yale University Press, 2014) by Robert M. DowlingBelow are notices from the Washington Post, Modern Drama, and the Wall Street Journal.  At the end, I’ve appended an essay by Dowling that appeared in the Hairy Ape program at the Park Avenue Armory.

[Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1888-1953) is the first (and so far only) U. S. playwright to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1936).  That he is still regarded as the country’s foremost playwright, and has been since the Provincetown Players began to present his plays in 1916, is reason enough for O’Neill to have been an influence on many later playwrights like Tennessee Williams.  Indeed, if the Provincetown had not broken with the commercial pap then being offered in New York, and had it not started presenting the experimental and innovative works of O’Neill, the American theatre might not have been ready for Williams or his contemporaries and successors when they came along.   

[O’Neill, the son of the famous 19th-century actor James O’Neill (1847-1920), known nationwide for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo, was born in New York and into the world of the theatre.  He learned the craft by direct contact, but eschewed his father’s field and went off to experience life at sea.  O’Neill turned to writing because he was confined to a sanatorium for months in 1912-13 when he contracted tuberculosis and he spent the time thinking about his life.  When he was released in 1913, he began writing plays, mostly about life at sea, and in 1916, he joined with a group of amateur artists from New York’s Greenwich Village who took their notions to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and launched their company with productions of O’Neill’s sea plays.  He and the troupe were an almost immediate success and they moved back to New York and later  that year, established themselves in Greenwich Village, the bohemian art center of the city and the country. 

[O’Neill debuted on Broadway in 1920 with Beyond the Horizon and his career as the preeminent playwright in the United States was launched.  O’Neill became world-famous, the first U.S. dramatist to attain an international reputation.  At the end of 1931, Mourning Becomes Electra opened in New York accompanied by extraordinary press attention (including a Time cover).  From that point on, no theatre student or would-be stage artist of any level could be immune from O’Neill’s influence to one degree or another.]

by Wendy Smith

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts by Robert M. Dowling, 
Yale; 569 pp.; $35

Robert M. Dowling’s thoughtful book restores balance to the slightly skewed 21st-century reputation of America’s greatest playwright. The ubiquity on world stages of Eugene O’Neill’s three crowning achievements — “The Iceman Cometh,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten” — has led to a narrow perception of him as the grimly naturalistic purveyor of a desolate worldview formed by his horrific family history. These late-career masterpieces have overshadowed the many groundbreaking works that preceded them, fostering the notion that O’Neill was exclusively concerned with his internal drama.

On the contrary, Dowling reminds us, O’Neill’s plays consistently voice his lifelong contempt for American materialism, imperialism, racism and puritanism. His empathy for the oppressed and outcast is evident in the seafaring dramas that first made his reputation in 1916-17. He believed audiences wanted more than trivial, phony entertainment, and he was proved right in the years between the two world wars, when his innovations in theatrical form and content gave him a string of unexpected hits. Dowling selectively highlights key moments that demonstrate the playwright’s “ripple effect . . . on American theater and culture,” dividing his narrative into four “acts” linking O’Neill’s experiences with historic shifts in American theater.

The first act depicts a childhood shadowed by his mother’s drug addiction and his father’s perpetual touring in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a profitable, artistically negligible melodrama. Dowling sensibly relies on Louis Sheaffer’s pioneering research in “O’Neill: Son and Playwright” (1968) and “O’Neill: Son and Artist” (1973) for most biographical facts. But while Sheaffer sees O’Neill’s relationship with his parents as central to his life and work, Dowling contends that O’Neill’s turn to playwriting was part of the process of “abandoning the child-self that had possessed him for too long.”

In the book’s second part, Dowling spotlights O’Neill’s collaboration with the Provincetown Players, a Greenwich Village group that shared his desire to smash outworn theatrical conventions. The playwright had two successful Broadway productions during this period (“Beyond the Horizon” in 1920 and “Anna Christie” in 1921 ), but Dowling focuses on his downtown experiments with effects such as the use of colored lights and beating drums. He argues persuasively that O’Neill primarily was interested in discovering new ways to move and challenge audiences. His explorations were triumphantly justified in 1920 by “The Emperor Jones,” the first popular American play to make use of European expressionist techniques (such as symbolic scenes and sound effects to portray emotional states) and to star an African American actor supported by a white company.

O’Neill continued to mingle theatrical and social provocation in his productions of the 1920s and early ‘30s, refusing to bowdlerize his material to suit contemporary prejudices or commercial imperatives. He didn’t have to, Dowling demonstrates in the third part of the book , which follows O’Neill from the Village to the Broadway theater as it succumbed to the revolution he and his comrades had wrought in the little theater movement.

The downtown shows were radical. “The Hairy Ape” (1922) dramatized working-class rage. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (1924) portrayed an interracial marriage. “Desire Under the Elms” (1924) made brilliant use of symbolist scenery and lighting to make palpable the play’s themes, but critics noticed only its sexual frankness, which led to censorship battles across the country. “The Great God Brown” employed the ancient device of masked actors to illuminate contemporary psychological conflicts.

O’Neill’s Broadway productions were just as radical. “Strange Interlude” (1928) aimed for the freedom of a novel, voicing its characters’ private thoughts in a new kind of soliloquy. “Marco Millions” (1928) satirized Marco Polo as a Babbitt-like businessman interested only in making money. “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931) created an American equivalent for Greek tragedy by relocating the Oresteia to Civil War-era New England. All were box office successes. O’Neill had forced the commercial theater to accept him on his own terms. The Nobel Prize in 1936 capped the decades of his greatest celebrity and influence.

In the last section of the book, Dowling takes us from that high point through the dark years of declining health that made it impossible for O’Neill to write after 1943. “The Iceman Cometh,” which received mixed reviews in 1946, and “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” which closed out of town in 1947, were the last plays produced while he was alive. O’Neill destroyed the incomplete manuscripts of his 11-play cycle about the dire spiritual consequences of Americans’ lust for success. He forbade publication of the nakedly autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey into Night” until 25 years after his death, which came in 1953.

Dowling covers this bleak period briefly. Although he serviceably relates the major events in O’Neill’s life, including his three marriages and struggle with alcoholism, readers looking for a comprehensive biography would do better with Louis Sheaffer’s two volumes. What makes this book a valuable complement to them is Dowling’s emphasis on the playwright’s engagement with the world and the theater.

Glib journalists often condescend to O’Neill as someone who spewed forth his personal demons in badly written plays that occasionally turned out to be great almost by accident. Dowling reclaims him as a self-conscious, committed artist who strove to break through the limits of production and get as much of the human condition onstage as possible. The freedom he seized and bequeathed to subsequent playwrights — from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to Tony Kushner and Sarah Ruhl — transformed the American theater. Compelling though his tragic personal story is, that is the more important story, perceptively recounted in “Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts.”

[Wendy Smith’s review appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post of 2 December 2014.  Smith is a writer in New York who frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.]

 *  *  *  *
by Alexander Pettit
University of North Texas

Robert M. Dowling. Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Pp. xiv + 569, illustrated. $35.00 (Hb)

The storyline is well known. Born “in a goddamned hotel room” in 1888 and fated (the word seems apt) to die in another one sixty-five years later, Eugene O’Neill, in the intervening years, endured a mother’s indifference and a father’s panicky fear of penury; survived tuberculosis; quit college, read widely, and shipped out to sea; bludgeoned himself with drink; abandoned a wife he barely knew and beat two whom he loved; treated two of his children with biting cruelty; declined slowly and horribly, unable to write and battered by emotional warfare; and, of course, made American drama do and mean things it hadn’t previously done or meant, earning a Nobel Prize and several Pulitzers in the process. O’Neill’s best biographers have found their tonal palettes limited: their subject, the arch anti-sentimentalist, resists sentimental representation by lending himself poorly to the roles of victim and scoundrel and not at all to the role of hero. In a self-reflective summation at the end of his impressive new biography, Robert M. Dowling defers to O’Neill’s third wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill: “Don’t sentimentalize him . . . He was a simple man. They make a lot of nonsense and mystery out of him. He was interested only in writing his plays” (472).

Carlotta presumably intended to disparage mythopoeia, on the one hand, and fancy-pants criticism on the other. She would have appreciated Dowling’s lack of interest in either. Unlike Steven A. Black, whose 1999 biography rose and fell on the relative strength of its psychoanalytic readings, Dowling has no particular version of O’Neill to peddle. Nor is he interested in the juxtaposing of voluminous oral histories and trenchant close readings practised by Louis Sheaffer, in his two-volume biography of 1968–73. Dowling’s passages on the written texts are concise summaries, punctuated occasionally by brief, pointed observations framed in sensible prose. At first, there seems something timid about his even-handedness, but the impression abates as one realizes that Dowling regards the biographer as principally an archivist, secondarily a stylist, and only incidentally a critic. Indeed, the few occasions on which he favours argument over exposition seem misplaced. Notable is an intermittent inquiry into O’Neill’s putative desire to write novels rather than plays. The evidence is compelling, but this seems more the stuff of the essay than the biography.

The years since the publication of Black’s biography have been busy ones in O’Neill studies, and this book’s currency is conspicuous among its merits. As Dowling notes, his is the first life to benefit from the discovery of a copy of the autobiographical, one-act Exorcism, which he presents as “a prequel of sorts to Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (77), thus making O’Neill the autobiographer easier to discern and less beholden to inference than he had been. Dowling’s mastery of canonical and recent scholarship – as recent as four months before the book’s release, in one instance – is always evident. An attentiveness to William Davies King’s post-1999 work on O’Neill’s wives, for example, allows Dowling to flesh out episodes that are necessarily sketchy in prior biographies.

When Dowling notes that he has introduced “a wealth of previously overlooked materials” (21), he gets to the nub of the matter: one marvels at the athleticism with which he has exhumed and incorporated documentary materials housed in government offices, regional archives, private collections, and academic repositories. A judgment until recently sealed in a county courthouse suggests that O’Neill may not have legally married his second wife, Agnes Boulton. In an unpublished 1928 treatise, O’Neill regretted the preference for music over “mechanical sound” that had prevented some of his plays from being produced in a suitably “modern” manner (359; emphasis in the original). An interview from the Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection has a young Marlon Brando fumbling through an audition for The Iceman Cometh and declaring the play’s author “nuts,” within earshot of O’Neill (451). According to a first-hand account, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill violated her husband’s injunction against prompt publication of Long Day’s Journey into Night in order to thwart the calumny of “whore[s]” who might otherwise have claimed after her death – tenuously, I’d think, given Carlotta’s well-known talent as a gate-keeper – to have bedded O’Neill during the play’s composition (481). And so on, marvellously.

Dowling’s accounts of O’Neill’s opening nights, the best on record, are enlivened by reviews, interviews, and anecdotes, many of them unfamiliar. His treatment of the premiere of All God’s Chillun Got Wings demands special notice. Dowling reanimates the “racially charged firestorm” (275) by reproducing, in provocative counterpoint, the commentary of respondents black and white, thoughtful and hateful, witty and pious, all grappling passionately with a play that still challenges us. I have never read a more engaging history of a play’s reception, and I find myself hoping that the book’s paraprofessional readers will recognize how much deeper than the Internet the historical researcher must dig and will appreciate the melding of honed instinct and time-killing commitment that this work demands.

Sometimes documentary inclusiveness works against Dowling. I would love to believe that Orson Welles predicted Oona O’Neill’s marriage to Charlie Chaplin after reading her palm. Dowling’s crediting of the account to a celebrity bio doesn’t allow me to, however, nor does the more circumspect representation of the alleged incident in that source. The assertion that Babe Ruth attended the premiere of The Iceman Cometh falls short for a similar reason, although, in this instance, the odds seem a bit better. But these are the sorts of quibbles that one feels obligated to indulge on such occasions, and I indulge them here reluctantly. This remains a book to celebrate: a master class in research methods, an exuberant acknowledgement of the scholar’s obligation to delight as well as instruct, and an arresting life of a man who, as Carlotta Monterey O’Neill’s appraisal suggests, cared little for living. Dowling says that he has written with a “general audience” partly in mind (20–21), and I suspect he will reach that elusive demographic without alienating more discriminating readers. The analogy to O’Neill should be obvious.

[This book review was originally published in Modern Drama [Toronto] 58:3 (2015). Alexander is the University Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of North Texas.  He specializes in the study and teaching of modern drama and has recently published essays on Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Luis Valdez, Caryl Churchill, and American Indian drama. ]

*  *  *  *
by Robert Brustein

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts
By Robert M. Dowling
Yale, 569 pages, $35

‘The intellect of man is forced to choose,” wrote Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” Eugene O’Neill chose the work. A few of his biographers, regrettably, choose his life.

The qualities we normally associate with the art of Eugene O’Neill are intensity, repetition and length. After his early one-act ”sea sketches,” inspired by the playwright’s own youthful days at sea, O’Neill rarely wrote a play under three hours – “Strange Interlude” (1923) and a number of others can take much longer. “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931) is a 12-act trilogy, and his unfinished cycle, “A Tale of Possessors Dispossessed,” was designed to be a marathon of nine plays, performed on nine successive evenings. Neither of his two late masterpieces, “The Iceman Cometh” (first performed in 1946) and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (first performed in1956) are meant to be performed in less than four hours (though Jonathan Miller’s brisk, semi-farcical rendition of the latter cut it almost in half). Except for an uncharacteristically late one-acter, “Hughie,” composed in 1941, virtually all of O’Neill’s mature plays are written in at least four acts.

Robert M. Dowling’s biography of O’Neill is subtitled “A Life in Four Acts,” and like his subject’s plays it is also very long, intense and repetitious. Some might ask why this book was necessary, given that O’Neill has already been the subject of a number of fine critical biographies, most notably those of the late Arthur Gelb and his wife, Barbara – “O’Neill” (1962) and “O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo” (2000), a revised version of their earlier work.

Mr. Dowling makes a few references to the Gelbs in his footnotes, in addition to minimal nods towards other critical studies. More than critics or scholars, however, he prefers the company of librarians, curators and archivists. He consults primary sources whenever possible (letters, interviews and especially manuscripts from the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) and adds a mountain of fresh biographical facts to those already known, exposing virtually every incident in O’Neill’s 65-year life to microscopic scrutiny.

As a result, it seems as if we are being told a great deal more about the playwright than we actually want to know – perhaps because we are being insufficiently instructed about why we would want to know it. Mr. Dowling has performed a monumental feat of investigative research. Virtually every aspect of O’Neill’s daily life, right down to his bathing habits and the letterheads on his stationery, comes under discussion. Would anyone complain if a biographer had uncovered as much detail about Shakespeare’s life?

I think there might indeed be some protest, if the Shakespeare biographer had fully explored daily events and only synopsized the works. Because Mr. Dowling largely reduces O’Neill’s plays to plot summaries and their productions to incidents in the biography of the playwright, we rarely feel that his overstuffed satchels of facts contain anything that could enhance or clarify O’Neill’s art.

Another problem with Mr. Dowling’s approach is that the playwright’s personal history is insufficiently various to keep the general reader from nodding. Much of his life seems to have been a cycle of illness, depression, fistfights, drunken debauches, rehabilitations, wife beatings, extramarital affairs, divorces, suicide attempts, recriminations and remorse. When asked by an interviewer why he writes about O’Neill, Mr. Dowling replied: “Because I am an Irish-American male who grew up in Connecticut and New York and feels at home in dive bars. I also love plays. And if they’re set in dive bars, all the better.” This suggests that Mr. Dowling is attracted to O’Neillmainly because he identifies with the ethnic lineup at Jimmy the Priest’s saloon, the Fulton Street dive that inspired “The Iceman Cometh.” But apart from an affection for plays with boozy settings (he names every pub where O’Neill ever lifted a glass and every brand of bourbon he ever consumed), Mr. Dowling never seems to probe very deeply into the creative soul of his subject.

Mr. Dowling’s species of alcoholic biography is characterized by generous blow-by-blow descriptions of the innumerable battles O’Neill had with his three wives and his abject failures as a husband and father. His first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, mother of Eugene Jr., divorced him because he was having an affair with another woman. O’Neill had a similar odi-amo (love-hate) relationship with his second wife, Agnes Boulton, mother of Shane and of Oona O’Neill. Agnes divorced him after he reportedly punched her in the face and threw a novel she was writing into the fire. His last marriage, with the snobbish, anti-Semitic actress Carlotta Monterey, was a dustup from beginning to end, though it admittedly constitutes the most lively portions of the book.

O’Neill’s extramarital activities drove Carlotta crazy. The playwright once leveled a gun at her, and she went at him with a butcher knife. (He later tried to get her committed to an insane asylum.) But somehow the marriage lasted, and Carlotta became the major caretaker of his talent, making the wise decision to produce “Long Day’s Journey,” first in Sweden, then on Broadway, soon after his death in 1953, despite O’Neill’s stipulation that it be withheld for 25 years. The dedication of “Long Day’s Journey” to Carlotta – “I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play” – is among the most tender descriptions extant of a literary marriage, even though this one was marked by constant brawls.

O’Neill’s relationships with his children were even more disordered. He never wanted them, and he didn’t like them – his Dalmatian dogs were treated with more affection. He told his daughter Oona, a would-be actress, that if she ever went to Hollywood he would refuse to see her again because she was “trading on my name.” (She responded by marrying the 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was barely 18.) Although Oona ended up in Switzerland rather than Hollywood, O’Neill kept his promise. He never saw her again, or any of his eight grandchildren.

As for his two boys, Shane was a deadbeat, addicted to heroin, while Eugene Jr. made some effort to follow in his father’s footsteps by teaching classical drama at Yale and publishing the invaluable anthology “Complete Greek Drama” with Whitney J. Oates. The two sons rewarded O’Neill with the unusual paternal distinction of both committing suicide. (Shane jumped out of a window, and EugeneJr. cut his wrists, Roman-fashion, in a bathtub.)

O’Neill may have been aggressive toward his wives and indifferent to his offspring, but the closest relationships reflected in his plays are with the older generation of his family – his father, mother and older brother, Jamie. His father, James O’Neill Sr., after sharing the American stage with Edwin Booth in classic Shakespeare plays, made the fateful decision in midcareer to spend the rest of his professional life playing the lucrative leading role in ”The Count of Monte Cristo.” According to his son, his father always regretted this sell-out (“What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder”). The roiling family resentments – O’Neill’s bitterness toward his father for not sending him to a proper sanitorium to cure his tuberculosis, Jamie’s love-hate for his brother’s talent, the family’s despair over the drug habit of their mother – form the autobiographical basis for what is universally considered the greatest play in the American language, “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

O’Neill had written many semi-autobiographical works before this, particularly about his failed love affairs and marriages. None possessed such a burning capacity for self-revelation. Even the names of O’Neill’s dramatic characters reveal some family secrets. All the Tyrones’ Christian names are the same as those of the O’Neill family – except for the author, who calls himself Edmund. As has often been observed, Edmund is also the name of Eugene’s brother who died in infancy, and the playwright may have been expressing here a desire never to have been born. But Edmund (Edmond Dantes) is also the title character in ”The Count of Monte Cristo,” so intaking that name, O’Neill may have been thinking not only about his own extinction but unconsciously about his uneasy relationship to his father’s career.

Mr. Dowling’s obstinate biographical approach is most compelling while discussing this extraordinary autobiographical play. Elsewhere “Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts” often seems irrelevant and unvaried. As a result, the book may strike one as ascholarly version of today’s celebrity gossip, where, instead of celebrating the quality and content of an artist’s or performer’s work, the media publicize every childhood illness, every marital failing, every false step, every drunken quarrel, every displaced bra strap, every nude photograph, drowning us in a sea of irrelevant scandal. There is no question that such material has its entertainment value. It is also a distraction from the true nature and purpose of art. O’Neill used his disturbed personal experience in his plays, but unlike his biographer, he knew how to use this material selectively. His intellect clearly chose perfection of the art over a fearfully imperfect life. Robert M. Dowling has done prodigious research on his subject, but we must continue our hunt for the real O’Neill in his plays.

[The review above first ran in the Wall Street Journal [New York] on 8 November 2014 (sec.  C). Robert Brustein, longtime theater critic of the New Republic, is an emeritus professor at Harvard and the founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre. (New Haven, Connecticut) and the American Repertory  Theatre (Cambridge, Massachusetts).  His most recent book is Winter Passages.]

*  *  *  *
by Robert M. Dowling

March 9, 1922, New York City: After the final curtain had fallen on the premiere of The Hairy Ape at the Provincetown Playhouse, a cramped theater space in the heart of Greenwich Village, the audience leapt to its feet. Louis Wolheim, who played the anti-hero Robert “Yank” Smith, received a deafening ovation, and the packed auditorium then echoed with cries of “Author! Author!” Their shouts carried on after the house lights went up; but once it became clear that the “author” wouldn’t be appearing, everyone slowly headed for the exit, still eagerly glancing over their shoulders for a potential last-minute, delayed entrance by playwright Eugene O’Neill.

A glowing New York Times review was printed the next morning, in which the theater’s auditorium was described as “packed to the doors with astonishment . . . as scene after scene unfolded.” Though the Times’ critic, Alexander Woollcott, contended that O’Neill’s script was “uneven,” he nonetheless acknowledged that “it seems rather absurd to fret overmuch about the undisciplined imagination of a young playwright towering so conspicuously above the milling mumbling crowd of playwrights who have no imagination at all.”

O’Neill’s mélange of dialect writing, his melding of dramatic techniques, and his terrifying indictment of the industrial world arguably made The Hairy Ape the most revolutionary American play yet performed on a stage. The Hairy Ape, his friend and future producer Kenneth Macgowan breathlessly declared after attending its opening, “leaps out at you from the future.”

When the thirty-three year old playwright first read his script to the Provincetown Players, the avant-garde “little theater” company who’d discovered his talent back in 1916, he did so without theatricality or embellishment. But after slowly muttering the last lines, he stood up, faced the assembly and shouted, “This is one the bastards [uptown on Broadway] can’t do!” Stunned by the play’s bold originality, the Players all cheered in agreement. Of course they soon realized that the commercial “bastards” would, inevitably, produce the play. And when it opened on April 17, 1922, at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway, O’Neill’s name shone upon the marquee in electric lights as a heady draw for uptown theatergoers. This fact alone was an extraordinary leap for an American playwright—the marquee was where the star’s name went, never the playwright’s. Broadway plays had nearly always been written and produced with moneymaking stars in mind, and their authors were principally viewed as hired guns rather than artists.

The Hairy Ape builds upon the thematic structure of O’Neill’s pioneering “race play” The Emperor Jones, which also enjoyed a popular run on Broadway after its 1920 downtown premiere. Each takes place over eight scenes, during which the protagonists are incrementally stripped of their grandiose delusions. Of the two, however, The Hairy Ape notably contains a more all-inclusive catalogue of O’Neill’s grievances against the unstoppable tide of technological “progress”—class conflict, materialism, alienation from the self and society, dehumanization, and disillusionment. “I have tried to dig deep in it,” O’Neill said of his newest achievement, “to probe in the shadows of the soul of man bewildered by the disharmony of his primitive pride and individualism at war with the mechanistic development of society.”

The Hairy Ape was bestowed rave notices after both the Greenwich Village and Broadway productions, yet much of the after-hours barroom chatter revolved around the play’s uncertain style and its origins. New York’s drama critics had vaguely heard of European expressionism, but not many had actually witnessed it aside from O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (which few at the time identified as expressionism) and the Hungarian Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (1909), a play just translated into English and produced by New York’s Theatre Guild the previous summer. (In 1945, Liliom returned to Broadway as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation Carousel.)

Even after The Emperor Jones, O’Neill was still largely identified with his naturalistic dramas based on life at sea, which as a young man he’d experienced firsthand. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to O’Neill’s naturalistic sea play “Anna Christie” in the same year The Hairy Ape appeared, and two years earlier he’d won his first Pulitzer for Beyond the Horizon, also a work of naturalism. The school of literary naturalism is a grittier form of realism (the two terms are often mistakenly interchanged), which believably renders the philosophy that an individual’s fate is determined by biological, historical, circumstantial, and psychological forces beyond their control. But by the 1920s, O’Neill had found naturalism too limiting for his imaginative scope.

“Naturalism is too easy,” he said in 1924. “It would, for instance, be a perfect cinch to go on writing Anna Christies all my life. I could always be sure to pay the rent then….Shoving a lot of human beings on a stage and letting them say the identical things in a theatre they would say in a drawing room or a saloon does not necessarily make for naturalness. It’s what those men and women do not say that usually is most interesting.” Hence his adoption of, or semi-conscious appropriation of expressionism, a method that originated with Central and Northern European dramatists such as Molnár, Germany’s Frank Wedekind, and Sweden’s August Strindberg (O’Neill’s self-styled mentor). Expressionist plays depict grotesque exaggerations of character and setting in order to represent distorted psychological states. Also unlike naturalistic plays, they “express” inner conflict through fantastical staging: “King Lear is given a storm to rant in,” one of the Provincetown Players explained, whereas “the Expressionist hero in anger walks on a street, and all the perspectives of the walls, windows and doors are awry and tortured.”

O’Neill’s true innovation, though, was to combine the two. “It isn’t Expressionism,” he remarked of The Hairy Ape. “It isn’t Naturalism. It is a blend—and, as far as my knowledge goes—a uniquely successful one.” (He nevertheless instructed that the set designs “must be in the Expressionistic method.”) It was this merger, what he later termed “super-naturalism,” that would prove to have the longest lasting impact on theater history. Throughout what O’Neill called the “Mad Twenties,” he kept working in this style with plays like All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Great God Brown (1925), and Strange Interlude (1927), which won him a third Pulitzer. The Hairy Ape thus signaled O’Neill’s complete transformation from an unruly naturalist to one of the consummate avant-garde modernists of the 1920s, and ultimately led to his becoming, in 1936, a Nobel laureate.

As late as 1946, after O’Neill’s writing career was cut short by an incapacitating, ultimately fatal neurological disease, a reporter asked him which of his plays he “liked the best.” He responded that this was really two questions: which play he liked the best and which he thought was the best. For the second question, he hedged a bit, but named The Iceman Cometh (its Broadway premiere was about to open). For the first, O’Neill was unequivocal: “I like The Hairy Ape.”

[Robert M. Dowling, Eugene O'Neill scholar and Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain,  is the author of the new biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography in 2014.  He participated in a panel discussion of “A Hairy Ape for the 21st Century” alongside director Richard Jones and actor Bobby Cannavale of the Armory production of The Hairy Ape.  This essay was originally written for Jones’s Old Vic mounting of O’Neill’s play.]

18 April 2017

'The Hairy Ape'

Following the success of The Emperor Jones in 1920, Eugene O’Neill’s first experiment with Expressionism in dramaturgy and one of the first uses of the artistic style in U.S. theater, the great American playwright returned to the stage with The Hairy Ape in 1922, his starkest example of expressionistic drama.

Expressionism came into being in Europe just after the turn of the last century, first as a movement in visual art, then in literature and drama.  Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) was one of the principal practitioners of expressionistic drama on the Continent, along with German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864-1918).  Expressionism came to fruition around the start of World War I, especially in Germany, and eventually migrated across the Atlantic to achieve a small foothold in North America.  O’Neill (1888-1953)—on whose writing Strindberg, whom John Gassner called “the father of the expressionism in O’Neill’s work,” “left a strong impression”—was the first important American writer to work in the style, followed by Elmer Rice (1892-1967; The Adding Machine, 1923), George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) and Marc Connelly (1890-1980; Beggar on Horseback, 1924), and John Howard Lawson (1895-1977; Processional, 1925). 

According to Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay’s Century of Innovation, Expressionism has several characteristics, of which many are pertinent to O’Neill’s plays of the style.  Most expressionistic plays are message-oriented, organized around an idea, theme, or motif instead of cause-and-effect.  The plays are structured as a search and the scenes are “stations” along the way.  The world of expressionistic dramas is materialistic, hypocritical, and callous and the central character is often martyred by the behavior of others.  The main character, through whose perspective the play is often seen, is usually the only one who appears throughout the play and therefore acts as a unifying figure.  The elements of the production, both visual and conceptual, are often abstracted to their essential details and events are reduced to demonstrations of an idea or argument, while characters are presented as generic, representational figures.  The dialogue, both as written and as spoken, is frequently stylized and telegraphic, while movements are choreographed and also reduced to their essential components; mime and pantomime are common.  Aspects of the performance, such as behavior, sets, props, lighting, clothing, make-up, and so on, are sometimes distorted and even bizarre, with symbolism a strong element in the production and writing.  Elements of fantasy, magic, dream or nightmare, hallucination or vision, and even psychosis are prevalent, and the whole presentation is meant to evoke the feelings, emotion, or psychological state of the central character, as if the entire world were reflecting the character’s perception.  Some or all of these elements are present in an expressionistic play or production, and I hope you’ll recognize that they’re part of the O’Neill performance I saw the other night.

The Hairy Ape is not one of O’Neill’s more popular plays.  Since its premières in 1922, first at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village on 9 March and then when it opened at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre on 17 April, I’ve only been able to identify two major subsequent productions in New York City: a 1996 staging by the Wooster Group at the Performing Garage in SoHo (Willem Dafoe played Yank), which the next year played at the Selwyn Theatre (now the American Airlines Theatre) on West 42nd Street in the Theatre District; and a revival by the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2006.  (O’Neill’s Emperor Jones is currently also in revival at the Irish Rep in Chelsea through 23 April,)  In the past baker’s dozen years, there have been at least seven revivals (not counting college shows) around the country: San Antonio (2004), Buffalo (2009), Chicago (2009), St. Louis (2012), Philadelphia (2015), Los Angeles (2017), and Colorado Springs (2017)—plus one in Ottawa (2015).  (There was also a somewhat bowdlerized film in 1944, starring William Bendix as Yank—called Hank in the movie for some reason—and Susan Hayward as Mildred.)

In October and November 2015, however, the venerable Old Vic Theatre in London produced The Hairy Ape under the direction of Richard Jones (on Broadway: David Hirson’s La Bête, Titanic) to great acclaim, and it has come here to the Park Avenue Armory (co-producer with OV) for a limited run.  Recast with U.S. actors but retaining Jones’s original OV design team, the show’s been reconceived for the 140-year-old armory’s recently created Thompson Arts Center in the former Wade Thompson Drill Hall.  (One of the largest spaces in the city constructed without columns, the drill hall is 55,000 square feet of unobstructed floor space with an 80-foot vaulted ceiling.)  The restaging began previews on 25 March and opened on the 30th; it’s scheduled to close on 22 April.  My usual theater companion  Diana, and I met at the armory at 67th Street and Park Avenue in the Silk Stocking District on Friday, 31 March (in a full-on downpour), for the 8 p.m. performance. 

(The 7th Infantry Regiment of the New York Militia—now a unit of the New York National Guard, redesignated as the 107th Infantry Regiment—that occupied the armory was known as the “Silk Stocking Regiment” because of the large number of members who were part of New York City’s moneyed class—ironic considering the subject of this O’Neill play.  The wood-paneled period rooms in the rest of the one-block-square armory, festooned with historical portraits of uniformed officers of the regiment, have been maintained in their original late-19th-century appearance and are open to visitors as bars after the performances.)

The 90-minute one-act unfolds in eight scenes.  In the firemen’s forecastle, the crew’s quarters below decks, of a transatlantic liner that has just sailed out of New York, the off-duty stokers are drinking, talking, and singing.  It’s a wildly multinational gang, with nearly every imaginable accent and dialect (coached by Kate Wilson).  Yank (Bobby Cannavale), depicted as a leader among the men, is confident in his strength to fuel the engines that make the ship and the world run.  The stokehole may be Hades, but Yank is its Pluto.  He comes down particularly hard on two of his companions: Long (Chris Barnow), a Cockney with unabashed socialist beliefs, and Paddy (David Costabile), an old Irish salt who rhapsodizes about the days of sailing ships.  When Yank demands, “Who makes this old tub run?  Ain’t it us guys?  Well den, we belong, don’t we?” declaring of their habitat below decks on a steamer, “Dis is home, see?” Paddy responds, “Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined them all together and made it one,” harking back to the old days recounted in O’Neill’s famous sea plays—and the days when man and nature were linked. 

(The characters’ designations aren’t all generic as in the paradigm of Expressionism, but  with names like Yank and Paddy, they’re pretty close.  The cause against which O’Neill is arguing in Hairy Ape is the replacement by mechanization of skill and lore—such as seamanship—with brute strength and repetitive labor.  He’s also campaigning against the disconnection of man from nature.  The stokers may make the ship run, but in their windowless world below deck they sail the sea without ever seeing it.  Paddy laments that these sailors are “caged in by steel from a sight of the sky like bloody apes in the Zoo!”  Seamen on the clippers about which Paddy reminisces worked on deck or aloft in direct relation with the sea and the wind and the elements.)

On the second day at sea, Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs), a steel tycoon’s spoiled young daughter, and her aunt (Becky Ann Baker) are talking on the promenade deck, the ship’s top outside level—far above the haunt of the stokers.  (Behind the women are huge blue letters, 14 feet high, that spell out “DOUGLAS STEEL,” Mildred’s father’s company which owns the ship.)  Mildred disdains her aunt and her father, but holds up her great-grandmother as a maverick because she smoked a pipe and her grandfather because he was an iron puddler in a foundry. Mildred and her chaperone argue over the dilettante’s desire to engage in “the morbid thrills of social service work,” ending only when the ship’s Second Engineer (Mark Junek) arrives to accompany her below decks for her planned visit to the ship’s stokehole, the compartment where the firemen shovel coal into the ship's furnaces, to “investigate how the other half lives and works on a ship.”  The aunt calls her a poser, but the heiress and her two escorts end up going below deck regardless.

In the stokehole, Yank and the other firemen (Barnow and Costabile, with Tommy Bracco, Emmanuel Brown, Nicholas Bruder, Jamar Williams, Amos Wolf), stripped to their waists, their bodies and faces smeared with coal dust, are shoveling fuel into the ship’s furnaces.  The scene is bathed in red light, as if from the glowing coals in the furnaces.  Mildred and her escorts have arrived at the stokehole’s entrance—to peer at the men as if they were exhibits in a kind if living diorama—and when the men notice her in her white dress standing behind Yank, they freeze in place.  Yank doesn’t notice Mildred and shouts threats at the unseen engineer above signaling the men to keep stoking the furnaces.  Wondering why the others have stopped working, Yank turns to discover Mildred, at whom he glares menacingly and raises his shovel.  Shocked by his appearance and gesture, she screams, “Oh, the filthy beast!” and faints.

Back in the firemen’s forecastle a half hour later, the men are showering off the coal dust.  Yank, however, is sitting “in the exact attitude of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker,’” still blackened from work, brooding over the incident in the stokehole.  “Lemme alone,” he growls.  “Can’t youse see I’m tryin’ to tink?”  He’s never had to do that before and the other men laugh mechanically, puzzled by his fury, and ask if he’s in love.  Yank is infuriated at Mildred for claiming that he resembles a “hairy ape.”  He becomes enraged and tries to charge after Mildred in revenge.  However, the men pile on him and wrestle him to the ground before he can get out the door.  Mildred’s insult has shaken Yank’s confidence in his place in the world as he knows it.  He begins to want more than anything to understand his confusion.

Three weeks later, the ship has returned to New York from its cruise.  Yank looks for Mildred in her upper-class milieu, determined to figure out where he belongs in this world.  (This is the search paradigmatic to expressionistic plays.  Words like “belong” and “fit in” become letimotifs in the dialogue.)  On the upper crust’s “private lane,” as Long calls Fifth Avenue in the 50’s—not far from the armory that Frank Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter characterized as “ground zero of the one percent”—Yank and Long argue over the best way to attack the ruling class while admiring how clean the street is (“Yuh could eat a fried egg offen it”).  The men stand before two expensive shops, a jeweler and a furrier, each with display windows showing off upscale finery for huge prices; a “monkey fur” garment goes for “two t’ousand bucks”—the equivalent of $28K now.  (I looked it up: monkey fur was actually used in that era; it’s illegal today in most states.) 

Yank is still obsessed with taking revenge against Mildred, but Long explains to him that she’s “on’y a representative of ’er clarss. . . .  There’s a ’ole mob of ’em like ’er, Gawd blind ’em!” as he points out at us in our sulfur-yellow seats, the same color as the set cages (as are the programs).  Yank rudely accosts a group of Upper East Side churchgoers, all dressed in identical black formal suits and gowns, the men in black toppers, as Long flees.  The swells all wear white, characterless masks (almost like surgical wrappings) covering their faces and move in unison like a “procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness.”  Some are also wearing yellow gloves, others yellow shoes, linking them to us in our yellow seats, for we, too, represent part of Mildred’s “clarss.”  Yank punches one toff, who doesn’t even react (imagine a live version of one of those inflatable bounce-back toys), in the face and is arrested.

The following night at the prison on Blackwell’s Island (a precursor to Rikers Island, now called Roosevelt Island), Yank has begun serving a 30-day sentence.  Seeing the prison as a zoo, he tells the other inmates how he wound up there.  One of them (Cosmo Jarvis) tells him about the Industrial Workers of the World, a Marxist-oriented labor organization, and urges Yank to join.  Enraged by the thought of Mildred and her father again, Yank bends the bars of his cell in an attempt to escape, but the guard turns a fire hose on him.  (This is a nifty little theatrical trick, by the way.  The hose doesn’t spray water, of course, as that would make a mess.  It’s some kind of vapor, though it’s not smoke and obviously not steam, as that would scald the actor.  It’s more like dry-ice vapor, but I’d love to know how it’s propelled though the hose—which stretches back behind the seating risers—with sufficient force to make it look enough like spraying water to make the theatrical point.)

Almost a month later, on his release from prison, Yank visits the local office of the IWW (also known as the Wobblies) to join the union.  (The local is envisioned by Stewart Laing as a communist bookstore lined with shelves of red-and-white books.  I wonder if the designer knew about Revolution Books that used to be off Union Square near where I live.)  The Secretary (Henry Stram) is at first happy to have Yank in their ranks because not many ship’s firemen are Wobblies.  However, when the stoker expresses his desire to blow up the Steel Trust, they suspect him of being a government provocateur and toss him out of the building.  In the streets, Yank has another run-in with a policeman; this one shows no interest in arresting him (“I’d run you in but it’s too long a walk to the station”) and tells him to move along.  Now he counts for so little, he’s not even worth rousting!  “Say, where do I go from here?” asks Yank, and the cop replies, “Go to hell.”

The following evening, Yank visits the zoo.  If the sea as Paddy experienced it is the world of nature where man either worked with it or struggled against it, and the New York City of Mildred’s Upper East Side is the world of modern man, denaturized and artificial, where nature, like the monkey’s fur, is turned to man’s service, the zoo is an uneasy and artificial juncture of the two worlds—and harks back to Mildred’s urge to see the stokers at work in their habitat.  The place itself is a construct of man, built for his purposes, but the animals that reside there are creatures of nature—and Yank senses, falsely it turns out, that this is where he fits in.  He sympathizes with a gorilla (Phil Hill), thinking they’re “both members of de same club.”  He breaks open the animal’s cage and goes in to introduce himself as if they’re friends.  The gorilla attacks Yank, fatally crushing his ribs, and throws Yank around the cage.  Mortally injured, the stoker laments, “Even him didn’t tink I belonged. . . .  Where do I fit in?”  He pulls himself up with the bars of the cage and with a mocking laugh, says: “Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at the one and only—one and original—Hairy Ape from the wilds of——” and with those words, Yank dies. 

I read The Hairy Ape years ago, though I’d never seen it on stage.  (I can’t remember for sure, but I may have seen the 1944 film with Chester A. Reilly—errr, William Bendix.)  All together, it was a curious experience at the theater, but I’m very happy to have seen the play.  Before I say anything else, though, I have to comment on Stewart Laing’s set design.

When I was in college, our theater director, Lee Kahn, talked about his dream theater.  He called it a “theater in the donut” and it was kind of a reverse arena: the stage was a ring around the audience who sat in swivel chairs so they could watch the action all around them.  Well, the Jones-Laing environment for Hairy Ape at the armory was exactly what Lee described—except without the swivel chairs.  (Laing’s original set for the Old Vic was designed for a standard proscenium house.)  To be precise, the action only takes place in front of the stationary bleacher seating, from what would be stage right to stage left, but the ring revolves not only to rotate set pieces—mostly self-contained (bright sulfur-yellow) boxes usually containing the actors already in place—into view, but also to accommodate movement as the actors walk in the reverse direction of the revolve so that they remain in place with respect to the spectators.  (Think of walking up a down escalator.) 

The stage is like a giant, flat, black luggage carousel at an airport—although a conveyor belt might be a more thematically apt allusion, reflecting O’Neill’s commentary on industrialization.  It’s 140 feet in diameter (about 440 feet around), the largest ever used in New York theater history says Paul King, the armory’s director of production, in an on-line report by Erik Piepenburg in the New York Times.  The belt, constructed of almost 50 tons of steel, moves about a half a mile, or 2,640 feet, over the hour-and-a-half run of the show.  That comes out to a speed of 29⅓ feet per minute, including standing time.  Ben Brantley called the stage a “semicircle” in his Times review, but of course it’s a complete circle, going all the way around the the 800-seat, 80-foot-wide, and 26-foot-high bleacher.  The 16-member stage crew completely changes the scenes, including costumes and makeup for the 15 actors—who wear 59 different costumes—from a loading dock behind the risers.  The stage ring is only out of sight of the audience for less than a minute.

The set boxes (as opposed to “box sets”; Edward Rothstein of the Wall Street Journal likens them to shipping containers), almost all sulfur yellow (Yank frequently hurls “yellow” as a label of contempt at anyone he disdains), are apparently made of metal.  (Laing, whose designs infuse Expressionism with elements of Russian Constructivism, asserts that “the most alien space that you could put human beings into would be a bright yellow, completely minimalist metal space.”  The designer adds, “At several points early in the play, the men talk about being in hell, this industrial world.”  Sulfur yellow “has a sort of hellish connotation.”  Also known as brimstone, sulfur, in the form of sulfur dioxide, one of the most dangerous air pollutants, is a byproduct of the burning of coal and sulfur is a frequent contaminant in iron ores, used in making steel.)  

The boxes are used very effectively, both symbolically—they’re like big cages, even when that’s not literally true—and theatrically.  The forecastle and stokehole have solid ceilings and one solid long wall and one short wall; the other long wall is open and serves as the front of the setting.  The other short end is barred and has a barred door in it.  (The end with the bars is, for instance, the entrance, on the stage-right side, which makes the forecastle and stokehole subliminally evoke a cage or cell in which the animal-like stokers, treated as subhuman by the ship’s officers and passengers—and, I’d assume, upper-deck staff like stewards and cooks.  It’s through this entrance that Mildred encounters Yank, a confrontation that’s echoed when Yank goes into the gorilla’s cage at the zoo.)  The jail cell and gorilla cage boxes are entirely enclosed by bars. 

Other sets that come out on the conveyor-belt stage are the IWW bookstore—there are no bars and there are doors in both side walls, out of the one on stage left Yank is thrown—and the Fifth Avenue set of the beige shop frontages.  (The Fifth Avenue set, which is also accompanied by 14-foot letters reading “NYC”—one of the several constructivistic aspects of the production design—is just a façade; there’s no interior.)  In all but the store fronts, the actors in the scenes are already in place, frozen in an attitude as if participating in a tableau vivant, when the set boxes rotate into position. 

Now, I’m something of a sucker for staging innovations, so this delighted me irrespective of any other theatrical or dramatic aspects of the production.  And there are several.  The rest of the black expanse of the (stationary) drill hall floor above the rather narrow revolving runway (Matt Windman described this as “an empty abyss” in am New York) is used for non-dialogue scenes of large group movements like the churchgoing swells and a parade of workers in union suits and hard hats, carrying yellow tool boxes.  (Laing also designed the costumes.)  The crumbling brick interior of the hall’s front wall (through which we’d entered the TAC), resembling a deteriorating building façade, is used expressionistically as well, with catwalks up high and down near floor level across which actors occasional scramble mysteriously.  The façade is painted a kind of grayish blue, but when unlit in Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting scheme it looks black and shadowy, rising ominously in the night like a looming hulk of a building with dark windows barely visible.  . 

The acting, both the vocal work and the movements, is expressionistically choreographed—and extremely well executed by the cast.  (The production has a choreographer, Aletta Collins, who also did the OV staging.)  As I noted, the actors arrive in the set boxes as if a film had been stopped, but when they start to move, it’s often in a synchronized pantomime of work or leisure.  In the stokehole, for example, the men feed the furnaces with large shovels, but there’s no coal, no furnaces, and no furnace doors, though the men go through the motions of opening the doors, turning upstage, digging a shovelful of coal, turning front, stoking the furnace, and closing the furnace doors with their shovels, all in choreographed rhythm.  Earlier, in the forecastle, the men sometimes speak in unison and when they laugh, it’s “HAH . . . HAH . . . HAH,” also in unison.  It’s remarkable to watch the actors as they go in and out of this rhythmic speaking or moving seemingly at random.  It’s obviously been rehearsed to a fine edge, but it doesn’t look like it.  I could almost believe it was spontaneous. 

Five times O’Neill (and Jones) has Yank sit in the pose of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker, telegraphing his unfamiliar efforts to ponder his situation.  (In the final scene, Yank enters to find the gorilla sitting in its cage in this same attitude.  The implication is unmistakable.)  Yank is beaten on the street by a crowd twice, once by the churchgoing swells and the police and then by the Wobblies after they throw him out of the meeting place.  (Thomas Schall is the fight director.)  Not only are both choreographed mime sequences, but they’re identical.  The work sequences convey that not only is the labor mindless and repetitive for each shift, but the shifts are all routine and changeless.  The beatings indicate that no matter where Yank is, who he’s with, or what he’s done, his treatment is exactly the same.  This is Expressionism at work!

In the church crowd scene, the rich folk all wear masks that make them look faceless, therefore without personality.  (The closest image that comes to my mind is Claude Rains as the title character in 1933’s The Invisible Man; they even have blackened eyeholes that resemble the dark glasses Dr. Griffin wears in the film.)  A promoter of masks in theater, O’Neill wrote, “I advocate masks for stage crowd scenes, mobs—wherever a sense of impersonal, collective psychology is wanted.”  More broadly, he stated:

For I hold more and more surely to the conviction that masks will be discovered eventually to be the freest solution to the modern dramatist’s problem as to how—with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of means—he can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.

The playwright later even affirmed:

In “The Hairy Ape” a much more extensive use of masks would be of greatest value in emphasizing the themes of the play.  From the opening of the fourth scene, where Yank begins to think, he enters into a masked world; even the familiar faces of his mates in the forecastle have become strange and alien.  They should be masked, and the faces of everyone he encounters thereafter, including the symbolic gorilla’s.

Within the context of the expressionistic production, the acting’s excellent, particularly the ensemble work.  There could be some argument about Combs’s portrayal of Mildred, the daughter of capitalism who’s sort of Yank’s antagonist—at least his trigger.  She can be seen as too 21st-century, too assured, and a little too bratty toward her aunt and her father, but that’s a matter of preference.  Costabile is an overgrown leprechaun, an appropriately stereotypical Irishman and old salt and the only man among the crew who doesn’t kowtow to Yank’s bullying.  

The only actor with whom I had problems was Bobby Cannavale as Yank.  He performed the role well enough, but he just didn’t look right to me.  First of all, he’s not big enough—Yank’s supposed to be a brute, “broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful . . . than the rest” (whom O’Neill depicts as having “the appearance of Neanderthal Man”: “hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes”), but when Cannavale “makes a muscle,” it’s barely noticeable!  He’s also too young and, if you’ll pardon the expression, pretty.  Even all smeared with coal dust, he’s hardly someone you’d call a “beast” (as Mildred does) or an “ape” (as others do).  (The best image I can think of for the role is either Charles Bronson or Neville Brand—who’s got the better voice for the part!—but I have no idea if either actor could have done the part.  Bendix, for a Hollywood take on Yank, is also a viable image, and from time to time, Cannavale seems to be channeling Bendix for line readings.  (Yank’s dialogue is written all in “Brooklynese”—dese, dose, youse, goils for ‘girls,’ and oith  for ‘earth.’  Bendix, who wasn’t actually a Brooklyner, was typecast as one because he mastered the speech so stereotypically!)  Since Yank is at the center of the performance almost 100% of the time, this problem has a weakening effect on the whole production.

But I’m not sure how much of that could have been salvaged.  Jones took everything to the extreme—all the performance choices and character depictions; O’Neill’s early shipboard scenes appear naturalistic—remember the U.S. audiences of 1922 were just being introduced to stylistically experimental theater and might have been confused by a performance that was 100 percent stylized.  In New York magazine, Jesse Green gives one likely explanation:

There’s something about our time that doesn’t favor expressionism, especially in mainstream theater.  The distortion of perspective and the inflation of emotional state that we may enjoy in paintings often feel onstage like gloomy satire.  We are mostly realists—not in reality, of course, just in our popular entertainment.  We are more comfortable with the couch and the bedroom than the jail and the smokestack.

Jones makes the entire play expressionistic.  He does this, I think, because the play doesn’t have the shock value in 2017 it had in 1922.  The polemics and preachiness which O’Neill wrote into the script would be enervating to a 21st-century audience, I think, if played realistically.  The socialism and anti-capitalism, the anti-mechanization and separation-from-nature for which O’Neill proselytizes—and Hairy Ape does get preachy and verbose for a 90-minute play—is pretty much old hat by now and we’ve either grown to accept it as truth or dismissed it as pipe dreams.  Once the play leaves the ship, it loses its—if you will—steam and starts to march in place, like the actors walking against the rotating stage.  

Except for that terrific scene—though it, too, goes on too long and is too talky in the end—where Yank finds himself at the zoo and confronts the caged ape.  The actor in the ape suit, a frightening Phil Hill (I wonder if he knows Biff Liff . . . or Lyle Vial?), is marvelous!  If we hadn’t been in the front row, I might have wondered if somehow they’d gotten a trained ape (until Yank goes in the cage with it).  Dramatically, it’s a little too literal for me, but theatrically, it’s gangbusters!  (Think that old American Tourister ad, except with Cannavale as the suitcase!)

Based on 21 reviews (as of 15 April), Show-Score gave The Hairy Ape an average rating of 87, with six high scores of 95 and nine 90’s.  The tally was 100% positive—not a single negative or even mixed notice.  My survey will cover 14 outlets.

In the Journal, Edward Rothstein described Jones’s armory production of Hairy Ape as “a stunningly beautiful (and expensive) staging” with “expert direction.”  Rothstein further asserted that

if you temporarily submit to the manipulations of O’Neill and Mr. Jones, you also come to see that the play is both more and less than agitprop.  It is more because there are magnificent soliloquies in which we hear the rhythms and phrasings of actual people, rather than the cartoons of ideology . . . .  The play is also less than agitprop, because it doesn’t fully accept the message it begins to peddle.

Calling the armory production of O’Neill’s play “mesmerizing,” the Times’s Brantley described it as “a serendipitous marriage of theater and real estate.”  Presented “amid the blue-chip addresses where its title character roams and despairs,” the Timesman observed, “it would be comforting to dismiss this 1922 drama as a fascinating anachronism”; however, “O’Neill’s nightmarish parable of alienation and class conflict still feels close to home.”  The revival is “ravishing enough to please the sort of aesthetes who worship Robert Wilson’s exquisite dreamscapes,” asserted Brantley.  “But this production also rings with the primal pain of a working-class American who, once stripped of the identity of his job, discovers he belongs nowhere.”  Brantley praised all the performances, singling out Costabile’s Paddy and Becky Ann Baker’s “propriety-conscious aunt,” but reserved special plaudits for Cannavale, of whom the reviewer declared Yank “a part that has just been waiting these many decades for” the actor to take up and which he performs “with both puffed-up arrogance and shrunken resignation.”

Joe Dziemianowicz dubbed the armory’s Hairy Ape a “massive and mighty revival” in the New York Daily News, a “stirring production” in which “[j]agged beauty abounds.”  am New York’s Matt Windman declared, “Never again are we likely to see such a massive, thoroughly designed, technically complex staging of an early 20th century expressionist play as the stunning production of” the armory’s Hairy Ape.  The review-writer further reported that “everything about it is huge: the venue, the mechanized set design, the seating arrangement, the scale of the performances and the main character’s agony and desperation.”  Windman observed, “The ensemble reinforces the play’s otherworldly style through synchronized movement,” but singled out Cannavale for his “raw, layered and highly physical performance.”

In the Village Voice, Zac Thompson delared that The Hairy Ape, in a “muscular, visually astonishing production,” is “a ninety-minute claustrophobic attack: There's almost no fresh air in it.”  Jones opts for “a stylized mix of outsize emotions and daring spectacle” in his staging, which “help the production transcend what seems at first a simple agitprop premise, becoming something unruly and unreal.”  Thompson added, “The searching, restless fury in Cannavale’s knockabout performance likewise pushes the production past an exercise in raising class consciousness.”  The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, characterizing The Hairy Ape as “awkward, false, and true,” sees Yank, played by a “stupendous" Cannavale, as “both a man and an Expressionistic impression of a worker, an embodiment of the playwright’s ideas about theatrical naturalism and how to elevate it beyond the proscenium and make it deeper, spookier.”  According to Als, Jones “is interested in masks—in returning O’Neill to a dramatic style that inspired him in the nineteen-twenties,” but “has a bigger palette, which allows him to fully exploit O’Neill’s operatic urges.”  The reviewer concluded, “Reading ‘The Hairy Ape,’ you’d never imagine what Jones comes up with, and those surprises are the reason the production is such a thrill.”   

Jesse Green cautioned in New York that the play “is not just expressionist but aggressively and experimentally so,” and, even “in a staggering, last-word revival,” is therefore “a difficult work to put over.”  Green explained, “O’Neill lavished so much attention on its style that the content begins to seem naïve by comparison.”  What little content there is is “more a timeline than a tale, a stop-motion autopsy of the working class in the machine age.”  Furthermore, the dialogue is so heavy-handed, it “can give you a headache.”  Cannavale “gets his mouth around the exaggerated dialect and makes it sing,” though Green found that while physically, the actor “is giving us expressionism[,] . . . his smooth interpretation of the speech is giving us realism.”  This, the man from New York asserted, “anchors a production, gorgeously directed by Richard Jones, that is otherwise full-tilt expressionism on the grandest scale imaginable.”  With respect to the visual aspect of Hairy Ape, Jones and Laing “create compositions of such depth and painterly mystery that the usual tediousness of the material is obviated,” with the complicity of “the superb lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin.”  Green did have one complaint, finding that the cast’s “slightly brightened performance level . . . matches the production’s design and refreshes the emotional palate,” but he wasn’t “sure it matches . . . O’Neill.”  (Despite what I said recently about Sam Gold’s rendering of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie on Broadway—see 8 April—I don’t believe it has to, especially if the production makes the author’s point.  Different audiences and different eras may need different presentations to get the ideas accepted.)

Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman called Hairy Ape “a visually stunning Expressionist marvel” with an “estimable Bobby Cannavale [as] a beautiful beast.”  Maya Stanton warned in Entertainment Weekly, “The experience of watching The Old Vic/Park Avenue Armory co-production of The Hairy Ape . . . is an unsettling one, both physically and metaphorically.”  Stanton added, “As it turns out, though, the cognitive dissonance between a work of art and a setting [that is, the Upper East Side] that inherently encapsulates the disparities at its heart is a jarring but ultimately effective tool.”  This “juxtaposition between setting and subject matter only helps the play land its punches,” she explained.  In conclusion, the EW reviewer affirmed, “In an era in which companies are given rights like people—and actual people are still seen as cogs in the machine by multinational corporations solidifying their power under what many see as a robber-baron presidency—O’Neill’s cutting critique of American social and economic structures couldn’t be more relevant.”

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck’s “Bottom Line” was “Cannavale’s visceral performance and the ingenious, overwhelming staging will blow you away.”  Calling the revival a “landmark production,” Scheck declared, “Environmental theater doesn’t come any more powerful than the staging of The Hairy Ape” at the armory.  Jones’s rendition “brings it to magnificent life with a visually stunning, stylized rendition that gains resonance from its overwhelming setting,” said the HR reviewer, adding that “you’ve definitely never seen it like this.”  The director “exploits [the setting’s] artificiality by visually emphasizing the elemental aspect” and “[i]maginative visual touches abound.”  Cannavale as Yank, “a perfect casting choice,” Scheck felt, “superbly brings his raw, macho physicality to the leading role.”  The review-writer concluded, “Admittedly, The Hairy Ape hasn’t aged especially well, often coming across like a theatrical relic.  But this landmark production provides a sense of the bone-chilling excitement it must originally have generated.”

David Finkle of the Huffington Post, characterizing it as a “gorgeous, astounding achievement,” pronounced the Hairy Ape revival “without question the production of the year.”  For Jones’s presentation, “Using the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall with unbridled imagination . . . vivifies the” play “in the ‘super-naturalism’ style the 33-year-old O’Neill favored.”  Finkle elucidated: “It’s as if O’Neill’s tragedy . . . has burst into a flowering series of images that depict how destructive to the worried soul the American class system can be.”  The whole production “is an event,” and the design team is “all full of marvelous surprises.”  Cannavale “is heartbreakingly convincing” as Yank, Finkle affirmed, and concluded that “this Hairy Ape looks like a million buck[s] (or, say, a billion).  Sounds ironic, no?  Maybe so, but all the same, it works like a house afire.”

On Theater Pizzazz, Carol Rocamora asserted, “Rarely does a production explode upon the theatre scene like Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, now receiving an extraordinary revival.”  Rocamora reported, “The setting is vast, and the spectacle is breathtaking,” adding, “One scene after another brings stunning visual images on the revolving conveyor belt.”  The TP reviewer concluded, “This special combination of directorial vision, design brilliance, choreography (Aletta Collins), star power (Cannavale), and seamless ensemble work has brought forth a unique revival.”  Zachary Stewart, dubbing the show “a muscular revival” on TheaterMania, asserted that “director Richard Jones gets to the essence of the playwright’s intention by giving this expressionist work a staging that is both clear and confrontational.”  Amid an ensemble of “angry stick figures,” Cannavale’s Yank “is by no means a lovable character, but he is an undeniably sympathetic one.”  Jones directs “with an appropriately heavy hand” and, with Laing, creates “a simple, dreamlike quality throughout,” enhanced by Sherin’s “dramatic lighting.”  The director “pulls no punches in this gorgeous and forceful revival, which asks the question: Just how much humiliation does it take to turn a begrudging acceptance of American inequality into a desire to blow the whole thing up?”  In Stewart’s view, “This revival could not have arrived at a better moment.”

CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer warned, “Despite it’s subtitle—‘A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life In Eight Scenes’—there’s nothing to laugh about in O’Neill 1922 expressionistic play.  But there’s plenty to keep you enthralled as you watch those eight scenes unfold in this stunning production.”  She characterized the production as “a splendid adaptation by Director Richard Jones and his designers to make their innovative stagecraft and interpretation fit this grand venue” of the Park Avenue Armory.  The CU review-writer acknowledged that “O’Neill’s dialect is a challenging mouthful,” but found that the “incredibly watchable” Cannavale “ably tames it, and at the same time meets the role’s ape-like physical demands”; “it all adds up to his being an intensely heart-breaking, often gasp-inducing stage presence.”  The ensemble cast is “superb,” and the “actors’ fluid back an[d] forth shifts between realism and highly stylized movements are expertly enabled by choreographer Aletta Collins.”  Sommer found, however, “Outstanding and full of subtleties as the overall acting is, the staging contributes as much to making this a not to be missed theatrical outing of this season.”