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.” 

1 comment:

  1. On 22 May 2017, the Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing handed out the Obie Awards for excellence in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater for the 2016-17 season. 'The Hairy Ape' won an award for Performance for Bobby Cannavale's appearance as Yank.